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Parent trap: Helliday or holiday?

Holidays and children. You have to wonder what's the point.

They can't take the heat, they won't eat the food. Occupying them is a full-time job. There are airports, driving on the wrong side of the road and languages that you don't understand -- stress piled upon stress just to escape the rain.

Last year, we made a complete hash of it. We did a house swap with a family from the south of France. On paper, it looked great. They had a private swimming pool for God's sake. How could you lose? But a swimming pool is not enough. Nothing is ever enough for these people.

Kids are like rogue kidnappers. They hijack your life, make all kinds of impossible demands and then kill you anyway. The first day, the pool was brilliant and this was the best holiday ever. By day three, the novelty had worn off and, because there were no toys in the house, they began to spend all their time sitting in the darkened living room watching foreign language cartoons.

Food is difficult at the best of times. On holidays, it's impossible. I spent hours in supermarkets trying to decipher labels in an attempt to find things vaguely similar to what they eat at home. Inevitably, no matter how much you dress it up and cover it in ketchup, they wrinkle their noses, push away the plate and say: "These aren't sausages." And you end up feeding them chips.

Between the cartoons, the chips and lack of sleep from the heat, they tend not to be at their best. Any time we went out for dinner, they were impossible. When this happens, I always start talking in an English accent, so all the tutting locals don't know we're Irish. I got caught out last year. A guy came up to us as we corralled the children out the door. "Where you from, mate?" I muttered something about the Isle of Man and scuttled away.

Then there's the driving. We got a loan of a sat-nav, but couldn't really get the hang of it. For a start, the volume was way too high and there didn't appear to be any way of turning it down. It was like having an extra wife sitting on the dashboard -- every so often, it would roar at me to turn right and if I ignored it, it would give me the silent treatment.

Annie, who's six and regards me as a kind of lovable goofball, transferred all her trust to this belligerent little machine with its strident English accent. "Why didn't we go right like it said?" she asks. "Because it's wrong," I reply. "Daddy knows a better way." This is greeted by judicious silence from the back of the car, the subtext of which is, you do in your arse know a better way. Then, after about three minutes, she asks: "Are we lost?"

The correct answer is yes, but, of course, I snarl at her that no, we're not lost. "Daddy knows exactly where we are." "Oh," she says in the same tone of voice that my wife uses when she understands that the best course of action is not to antagonise me any further. So now it's like I've three wives in the car.

This year we tried house-swapping again, and went to Ostend in Belgium. This time, it worked -- because we swapped with a family whose kids' ages matched our own. The children found themselves in a house full of toys -- toys they'd never seen before. Plus, there were great playgrounds within walking distance. And getting around was so easy. European cities are designed with people in mind, as opposed to our cities and towns, which aren't designed at all.

Which isn't to say it didn't have its stresses. The vast beach was nearby. Miles of golden sand is all very well, but this becomes less attractive when you have to drag a buggy backwards across it, while Conor sits inside like a medieval king. The other two are so knackered from the heat that they have to take turns on your shoulders, and by the time you get to where you're trying to go, you're about ready to drop.

"Daddy can we bury you?" "Sure, go ahead." Then they make you dig the hole yourself. Sigh.


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