Friday 24 November 2017

The art of group holidays

After a week away with friends, Emily Hourican muses on the crucial dos and don'ts of communal holidays

On a communal holiday you have to relax and be tolerant. Photo: Getty Images.
On a communal holiday you have to relax and be tolerant. Photo: Getty Images.
Emily Hourican.

'I'd be happy to sit next to anyone here." So said a friend (in tones of some surprise) in a French restaurant near Bordeaux recently, as we tried to work out seating arrangements for ten. "Golly," the rest of us responded. "That's amazing!"

You might think his remark rude, or unnecessary, or both, but that - I suspect - is because you haven't been on a group holiday in a while, and have forgotten how fraught these can be. The way in which previously dear friends, after just a couple of days, can start to act on your nerves like lemon juice on a cut (the fact that you are undoubtedly doing the same to them is scant comfort). The way the slightest decision can become a three-ring circus, and the minutiae of what various people and their children will and won't eat, a matter of intense scrutiny.

By choosing to coop yourself up for a period of time with people who have not grown up with you, who do not usually live with you, who have no idea how grumpy you are in the mornings, or how badly you cope with hours of rain-enforced idleness - and when you are equally ignorant of their secret fads, foibles and foul habits - you are risking friendship, sanity and the success of the holiday.

Now, this particular group holiday - 17 of us, including eight kids - was highly successful, but even so, the many potential pitfalls were lurking, ghostly reminders of What Can Be. The last time I went away with so many people, we were all in our early 20s, without kids, and we went to Ibiza for a week. It was the 1990s, and clubbing was the thing. We took two large villas, and lived it up. The rules then were really pretty simple: always be up for everything, and don't get so messy that your friends' night is ruined.

Fast-forward to now, and the rules are different, and far more numerous. Actually, the first rule about rules is: how many can you tolerate? There is no point heading off with someone who likes to pre-plan every second of their week, and impose a strict regime, if you are the sort to make it all up as you go along and don't much mind about crumbs in the butter dish. Really, the secret to a good group holiday is escape, and building the possibility of this into the very fabric of the trip. By which, I mean: make sure you have enough cars, and drivers, for everyone to be able to do their own thing. Make the doing of one's own thing easy and expected. Constantly trying to move as a pack will leave you all wanting to scream with frustration.

Meals are what will really trip you up. They seem to come around with alarming frequency; no sooner is one massive banquet for upwards of 10 people cleared, then the next is due. Frankly, it's for masochists and Irish mothers, so unless your group is lucky enough to contain one of the above, you're going to have to outsource this. Find a restaurant, preferably local, and use it enthusiastically. Oh, and when you do have to shop - no buying pricey gluten-free products or weird crisps that everyone else will hate, out of the communal budget.

Children are the real hazard on group holidays. They are quite likely to act like small detonators, setting off bombs all around them. They will fight with each other and with you. They may also whinge, demand and generally irritate other adults, particularly those who don't have children of their own. The key thing here is - do not get involved in disciplining other people's children; see the novel The Slap for more on this. And if your own child is the fly most often in the ointment, you are going to have to face up to this and start planning some hours off-site, with said child.

There are many more rules - about bathrooms, bedtimes, cereal consumption - but the main thing to remember is, you want to come home still liking each other. Everything else is secondary. It's a holiday, not an opportunity to showcase your micro-management skills. Relax, be tolerant. Oh, and bring enough chargers. Nothing wrecks a holiday more than a chorus of: "Are you finished? Can I just stick my iPad in . . ."

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