Getting away from getting away from it all

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The Independent Culture
Now Is the time of year when you start get-ting nobbled, if you haven't been nobbled already. "I don't believe it," buggers say, plucking at your sleeve with their wizened holiday brochures, before launching into some desolate vacation tale about ferries or trains or hotels, some drain jeremiad or salmonella homily. The memories of last year's nightmare fuel the planning of this year's. Nothing will deter them: monsoon, mistral, athlete's foot or guano lung; parasites that turn the blood to soup, prophylactics that drive you insane, scorched vermilion skin hanging, irradiated, in tatty flaps; sex scratchy with sand or intolerance, holiday sex, grimly licit duty-sex made hateful with the burden of the familiar-made-new.

Sometimes life is dull as a deathbed. But sometimes terrible things happen. Sometimes you have to undertake irksome journeys, rising before dawn to miss connections, eat terrible road-food, huddle in transit camps, queue, wait, submit to indignities and the importun-ing of uniformed functionaries. (It is a curious irony of our condition that we so often give in to men who allow others to tell them how they must dress.)

If these things happened suddenly, in response to a midnight call, a terrible crisis, a 4am door-knock from the secret police, it might be tolerable. But they don't, and it isn't. We plan them; we sit for hours, poring over promotional material selling us the instruments of our own undoing. We shamelessly boast of our plans for the temporary dissolution of our lives. We save up or go into debt so that we can enrich the dismal operatives of the lethal holiday trade: terrible people called Barry and Geoff and Mandy-speaking-how-may-I-help- you?, who look down on us and rook us and herd us like sheep-clones and go to conferences to learn how to be even more ruthless.

Think of them in their blazers as you huddle over the kitchen table, debating Provence, the Hindu Kush or a fortnight's potto-hunting in the Venezuelan hinterlands. Their brassy acetylene breath might just strip the gilt from your holiday gingerbread before you've taken the fatal step, handed over the credit card, checked the inoculations and found yourself wandering around luggage departments like a virgin in a bordello, drooling over Globetrotters and Samsonites, soft-sided cases and heavy leather Gladstone bags, unable to de- cide which one would enhance your image, make this holiday the one that works, turn this trip into the fortnight in which your skin turns bronze, your eyes turn blazing blue, your spouse starts wanting you again, and you come back ... different. Changed. Freighted with some experience which will make your life into a comprehensible construct, a valid work of art.

But luggage won't do the trick. Destina- tions won't do the trick, either, nor will all the discomfort and horrors of getting there. Whoever said it was better to travel hope- fully than arrive should have added that best of all is not to go in the first place; not on holi- day, and not from choice.

Bitter? Me? Feh. I am telling you the truth, and you know it. You don't want to go on holiday with your family. You are bored with your family. You see them every day. Your husband is only in your presence for 12 hours a day; two-thirds of that time he is comatose in bed, but even in the remaining four hours he can reduce you to outraged stupefaction. Do you really want to spend a fortnight with him there all the time? Do you really want to rekindle your sex life? Passion is a means, not an end; going on holiday with an old familiar companion is like taking a can of cinders to the Arctic, hoping that they will keep you warm. You know I am right.

And the children? Oh, come, come, come. You love the children dearly but, although you would undoubtedly die for them, these are people who cannot drive, don't drink, and have never had to fill in an income-tax return; are they really suitable companions for an adult to be sequestered with in cramped and probably sub-standard accommodation, in an unfamiliar climate with dicey food and no easy way out? Of course they are not.

But there is an alternative to this nonsense of exotic destinations, hideous fibreglass "heritage" tripe peddled by men you wouldn't want to step in, unspoilt bollocks, gentle welcoming blah, spice-scented bleeeuch and caressing tropical yadda yadda yadda. And that alternative is a life-exchange programme.

I know this because I do it all the time. Being a man of little persistence, and pathetically destitute of bottom and follow-through, I flit from flower to flower because I too must live. In the last couple of weeks I have been an author, a screenwriter, a radio commentator, a computer programmer, a television presenter and a paleopathologist's moll. I have worked in five different offices in three different towns, on two different computer systems and in an indefinable number of different chairs at different desks. I have sat in various smoking-rooms, chatting and making jokes; I have had the same conversation about superstitions with three different groups of women, and the same conversation about the Far East with two different wild-eyed cackling Prozac abusers. I have waited in different lobbies of different hotels, said cheery good-mornings to people I hadn't met yesterday and won't see after tomorrow, and walked around cities so similar to my own that they might as well be round the corner, yet simultaneously so different they might be from Mars.

I feel refreshed, restored, recreated. It hasn't cost me a penny; I have been earning my living all the time. You too can live like this. We need a central register of people who are prepared to put their lives up for temporary exchange. Much more fun than dumb holidays that drive you nuts and screw up the planet. Send your details to me, and, next summer, forget the Ho Chi Minh Trail; for real enlightenment, go to the office instead. !

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