Travel: Muggings, buggings and other holidays in hell: If you want to impress your friends, don't tell them about sea and sun; stick to cockroaches and projectile vomit, says Reggie Nadelson

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The Independent Travel
IN THE New York Times the other Sunday I saw this advertisement for a hotel in the Catskill Mountains: '1,000 Jewish Singles. 2nd Annual International Convention for Young Jewish Professionals'.

Now, I have never been on Outward Bound. I have not experienced a cruise on the Love Boat. I have never been to either South Yemen or North Korea. But I have been locked in a loo in South Wales, and I have eaten a meal resembling nothing in nature in the Russian town of Gagarin. (Also, I spent a couple of nights last summer at the Ramada Motel in Houston, which, located directly under a freeway, with its pulsating disco and complete lack of any other facility, has no equal except possibly the Bates motel in Psycho.) And I have been on a singles weekend in the Catskills.

For me, the notice in the New York Times had a kind of Proustian power. It evoked memories of a short holiday that had the exact quality of a quick trip to hell.

What was planned as a weekend devoted to winter sports also happened, by chance, to be a Singles Weekend. I was single all right. I was about 20, I guess, but there was a problem: I was there with my father.

It was my last year in college and with a free weekend coming up, my father proposed an outing. Feeling sentimental, I suggested we go to the Catskills, to the Concord Hotel. In the late Fifties, along with another family who had a kid my age, my parents and I had made annual outings to the Concord for a winter break, largely devoted to my father's passion - and briefly mine - which was ice-skating.

The Concord is a large resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains, a couple of hours from New York City. Sometimes known as the 'Jewish Mountains', the Catskills was a summer refuge for city Jews for decades, beginning in the Twenties.

The 'Borscht Belt', as it was also known, was a rich breeding ground for comics, who often became superstars. Among them was Mel Brooks. In I Thought I Was Taller, the BBC Arena film, Mel Brooks tells a story about eating in the Catskills. He reports how everything there was served with sour cream: chopped vegetables with sour cream; pot cheese with sour cream; eggs with sour cream; as a finale, blintzes and sour cream. There would follow a sequence in which many of the men, now sated, would go out into the hot sun. Inspired by all this pleasure, one might stand on a table and sing 'Dancing in the Dark'. When he reached the high note, the sour cream would have risen to his heart and he would immediately have a stroke and die.

As a kid, I was crazy about the Concord. The rooms each had two bathrooms. In the lobby were cocktail parties that featured immense ice sculptures gushing pink champagne and surrounded by fields of chopped liver. There was skiing and skating, games of Simon Sez and oil-painting lessons in the crafts room. There was an enormous pool, where the resident swimming professional was Buster Crabbe, who had once appeared as Tarzan in Tarzan the Fearless, and in Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars.

The Concord had a wonderfully beneficent policy towards children, and in the night-club, which, as I recall, seated around 10,000, you could consume endless Shirley Temple cocktails or partake of the cha-cha lessons. At 10, or 11, or 12, paradise was yours; Eden was only just up the old Route 17, into the heartland of New York state, complete with a stop at the Red Apple Diner.

And so when, in that last month before I finished college, my father suggested an outing, I knew instantly that the place to go was the Concord.

My mother stayed home.

In my head, the Concord had, of course, remained suspended in an emulsion of schmaltz, the Edenic experience of an 11-year-old, complete with cocktail hour. Nothing had changed, as I quickly saw, and that was just the trouble.

The Sixties seemed to have passed the Catskills by. On this particular singles weekend, the entire place was overtaken by impeccably groomed young women, each arriving with enormous matching sets of pastel luggage, each of whom changed her outfits regularly, each wearing a hairdo so stiff with hairspray that it was unlikely to budge before the birth of the first child. The young men were all dentists; all looked like Mark Spitz, the Olympic swimmer who would himself become a dentist.

The young women and men circled one another with ritual terror and disdain, and I sat gloomily at the bar, with my father, drinking dry martinis and trying to exhibit sophisticated disinterest. But what I knew in my heart was the awful truth: one day soon, this could be me.

THE THING about a really lousy holiday - the pay-back, so to speak - is that everyone will love you afterwards. Great trips or excursions are only appealing if you've been on them. Other people, stuck at home in the rain, do not want to hear of sunny days at the Voile d'Or in Cap Ferrat where you ran into Sean Connery or Mel Gibson and Sean or Mel offered you a drink. They do not want to hear how you got upgraded to the Concorde, or of the blue skies over Manhattan, or the room with a view of the Taj Mahal.

No, they want tales of woe: of that bargain jaunt to Puerto Rico during mosquito season; of muggings in Manhattan and buggings in Moscow, and of how the hotel in Honolulu failed to deliver your hospitality pineapple.

Hellish holidays come in all kinds of packages, I've discovered during a lifetime on the move, and many of them involve Finland. Politically incorrect, I'm sure, but I can't help it. Maybe it's because the very first junket I was offered, back when I was a neophyte travel writer and freebies were in vogue, was a trip to Helsinki.

I went because the trip was free and it included a cruise to Leningrad. Perhaps Helsinki has changed and is a dynamic sort of place now, but in memory, it was always grey.

Helsinki seemed to me to be a provincial town full of dour men and sour, if beautiful women, all speaking Finnish, which belongs to a language group that includes only Hungarian and Basque, so far as I know. Nor could I penetrate the arcane snobberies which had to do with speaking Swedish.

Much time was devoted by my official hosts to showing me Alvar Aalto vases and tortured jewellery and Marimekko fabrics. But I was already prejudiced against Marimekko, because in America in the late Sixties it implied the sort of right-on people who were Design Correct and shopped at a place known as D/R (for Design Research]) and had Rya rugs on their floors.

So there I was, stranded in Helsinki. The novelty of eating reindeer soon wore off, as did drinking cloudberry liqueurs. Invitations to experience a sauna did not help. The Finnish idea of fun, sitting in a boiling wooden box while someone beat you up with nasty-looking birch boughs, was not mine. Wandering around the port, I glimpsed the boat that would take me to Leningrad, but the voyage was three days off; I fled to London.

And then, nearly 20 years later, in 1988, I was back. Back in Helsinki and, once more, en route for Leningrad, this time by plane.

The snow fell harder. The plane was delayed. The airport shut down, the planes grounded. As midnight came and went, we sat on plastic chairs and watched other people on plastic chairs drinking things like lager and Avocaat - sometimes mixed together - from the duty-free shop. Soon enough, many of the passengers fell off their plastic chairs. Around 3am, there was a window of opportunity; with relief, we all embarked.

'Guess what Aeroflot doesn't have,' said my travelling companion.

'I'd rather not know,' I said.

'Oh go on, guess]'

In fact, I was transfixed by the flight attendants. Having delivered to each of us one plastic tray holding a plastic cup of mineral water and a single Soviet sweetie, they were now, variously ashen or sullen, strapped into their own seats, looking terrified as the aircraft shuddered and swooped in the terrible storm. None was at all interested in the fate of the passengers. None minded, it seemed, that many male passengers were frolicking in the aisles, playing soccer with empty beer cans.

'No spare oxygen supply,' my friend alleged triumphantly. And whether or not it was literally true or apocryphal is lost in the mists of history, but that's just how it felt. 'Aeroflot doesn't carry extra oxygen. And it has very big windows. Huge windows] Look. And cracked, too]'

There followed a stay at the Pribaltiskaya Hotel, a modern structure on the outskirts of Leningrad. Like all Soviet hotel rooms, the beds were too short and the blankets too itchy. In the corridors were marauding Finns: I soon discovered that Leningrad had become a haven for drunks.

The Finnish government, worried about alcoholism, had cracked down hard. Enterprising citizens would, therefore, escape for the weekend to Leningrad, intending to drink till they dropped, which they did. At the Pribaltiskaya, they drank themselves into a stupor, then fell down in the corridors and went to sleep.

This was not, I somehow felt, what Lenin had planned for when he left Finland with his wig on. Lenin did actually wear a wig - it's in the Lenin Museum in Moscow - when he made his clandestine journey back to Russia to make Revolution. In his passport, incidentally, under occupation, he wrote: 'Son of a nobleman'.

As the Berlin Wall fell and the Iron Curtain rose - for years I saw them in my mind's eye as exactly the same thing - a whole range of hellish possibilities began disappearing. Not long ago, the Soviet Empire offered limitless possibilities for variations on misery. Tales of horrible nights in Moscow hotels - the cockroach in the mini-bar, the odd brown stuff on the sheets, the flaccid sausage for breakfast - could give you command of any dinner party. Things have improved enormously, what with the appearance of many well-run hotels such as the Aerostar. Life in Moscow is clean, but dull. There is still hope, though.

In Moscow a few months ago, I encountered a friend, a television newsman - call him 'Jack' - who had recently stayed at the Rossiya Hotel. The Rossiya, which has 3,000 rooms, is one of the great remaining hellholes of Eastern Europe and should not be missed. Like many of Moscow's older hotels, it is still patrolled by hookers, looking for clients.

Once, the hookers would simply call you on the phone in the middle of the night, declaring that 'Lovely Lolita', say, was available. In the case of Jack, however, things were different. In the middle of the night, he suddenly woke with a start. Sensing something amiss, he opened his eyes to find three 'Lovely Lolitas' inside his room. They were in his room, staring down at him, looking for custom. 'F*** off]' yelled Jack, startled. 'Oh good, you want f***]' replied one, not the least perturbed.

A VACATION can turn into a nightmare, however, simply because you are in the wrong climate for a particular season. I once spent Christmas in Miami where all the trees were frosted plastic. The problems are similar in Sydney, where the roast turkey may be served on days where the temperature reaches 110 in the shade. And the notion of a summer holiday at a British beach is, of course, an absolute contradiction in terms.

There are holidays which can be ruined by Groupthink, and others by sex or the lack of it. I went to Lake Tahoe once, a very pretty place, all piney woods and silky water. The trouble is, also there was a large group of French students. No one ever did anything on his or her own. Nothing. Meals were communal, swimming was undertaken in gangs, so were sunbathing and cooking and sailing, and all of it accompanied by the annoying chatter of perfect French speakers.

As for sex, more relationships have been ruined by holidays than money or extra-marital pursuits. I know a man, a very very nice man, who planned to take his new bride to Sardinia, his favourite place on earth. This was years ago, when, unspoiled and almost undiscovered by tourists, Sardinia really did resemble paradise.

Almost from the minute they arrived, it was clear the vacation was a wash-out and so was the marriage. His bride hated Sardinia. Hated everything about it. In the end, our hero ended up hanging from a tree by his heels trying to make her smile. She never smiled.

Or take the year when, living in Paris, I insisted that a holiday weekend should coincide with my birthday. This happens to fall on 15 August, when all French people take to the road, coming, going, enjoying les grandes or les petites vacances, or both at once. No one would be caught dead in Paris, and I was young and adamant. What's more, I had just discovered the pleasures of the Michelin Red Guide. I'd spent happy hours working out which hotels had the most red birds in rocking chairs, and were, therefore, the most picturesque.

Off we went towards the Brittany coast and Quiberon and the red bird in the rocker. We spent a long day in gridlock getting out of Paris. A long day on the highway. And when we finally arrived in Brittany, at the perfect hotel, in the middle of an August heatwave, what we found was: there wasn't any water.

I can't remember why, now - something to do with a drought, I think - but water was heavily rationed, the toilets didn't flush properly and you could only have a shower every other day. Even then, it was a rusty drizzle. You slept with sand in your hair and tar on your feet and it was very, very hot. It was, to all intents and purposes, the end of the affair.

But, as you head into summer and the tortures of travel, when it is torture, always remember that next winter, your travails will win friends. Remember that no one at all wants to hear about how Junior was an angel on the plane, but will prefer the tale of how Junior did projectile vomit, in business class, all the way from London to Sydney.

This actually happened to a friend of mine, the novelist Kathy Lette, who, thus drenched, was subsequently lent a spare uniform by a kindly flight attendant. Without missing a beat, a fellow passenger turned to her and said: 'Can you get me a drink?'

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