Travel: Long, lazy month on the beach let the intensities of life slide away
When I look back on it, I realise that 2013 was the year of travel. And that 2014 will be the year of paying for it.
My first trip of the year was undertaken with a very heavy heart. An old school friend, one who had pushed behind me in the scrum for many years, had died in London.
He was 50 years old. We always joked that, although we didn't see much of each other these days, there would be time later, when our families had grown.
We would watch rugby and sip pints and give out about the younger generation, all in good time. Except he never got that time, and his funeral was the saddest occasion I have ever witnessed.
At Easter, it was back to London for a trip organised by my wife. The hotel room she had found was so small, I had to butter myself to get into it.
At least it was centrally located, right opposite Victoria Station. You couldn't miss it. Except I did. I came out the wrong exit and walked for about four miles. I thought there was something wrong when I could see Battersea Power Station. A very kind taxi man dropped me back.
Then my wife had another bright idea. She wrangled two whole months off work. She wanted to get away. In her mind's eye, she saw us in a house on a beach somewhere.
The somewhere turned out to be the Greek island of Serifos, and the house we found was right on a beach. A clothing-optional beach into the bargain, which probably explains the high rent.
But before we got to Greece, we had a month pottering around Germany, Italy, Switzerland and France. We ate Black Forest Gateau in the Black Forest and drank cassis in Cassis.
My memories of this trip do not come as one long record of our travels, but rather as scenes and fragments: the Swedish man complaining to the tourist office in Cassis that the sea was too cold; my daughter's face when we boarded a water taxi in Venice; my wife cycling through drifts of falling tree seeds by the Loire.
When we got to Serifos, we hardly moved. Across the bay from us, we could see the outline of Sifnos, a sister island to ours. It's beautiful, everyone told us, much greener than Serifos. You should go there for a day trip.
Yes, we thought, we must do that. It seemed to taunt us from across the water. We even got as far as enquiring about ferry tickets. But the days turned into weeks, and we never made it.
It became a sort of symbol for those goals you set in life, but never really want to achieve, like writing that book, or getting really fit, or running a marathon. Because once you've done them, what is left? Perhaps it's better to have something to look forward to than to look back on.
I see now that we were very lucky to have had this time together. The month on Serifos seems particularly blessed. Four weeks of basically doing nothing. The toughest decision we faced each day was which beach to visit.
There is something that happens to your mind during long breaks like this. After a while, it's like it dumps its data load. It reboots. It de-fragments its drives. There is space for other thoughts to present themselves, other plans to come to the front of the mind.
Because of the time and distance, you get a new perspective on your life back home. The intensity of being 'in' your own life at home is gone; you are more detached and able to see patterns and pitfalls.
You decide things on a holiday like this. You can't help it. For instance, I decided that I was going to change my golf grip from interlocking to overlapping. Radical, I know.
For most of the coming year, we'll be paying back all the debt we ran up on our Grand Tour. But looking back on it all from the depths of an Irish winter, I reckon it was worth every penny.