As anyone who has ever gone on holiday will know, time spent away from the humdrum is directly proportional to time spent a) thinking obsessively about methods of self-improvement, and b) eating. Unfortunately, one has very little to do with the other.
But, after two weeks of sumptuously hearty and wholesome home-cooked meals – from sinuous slabs of mozzarella on basil leaves to a burping, boiling-hot saucy moussaka – I realise that I have got my self-improvement tactics all wrong.
I have always seen my lack of interest in cooking as a badge of honour. Food is fuel, some of it tasty, some not. I would happily exist on Super Noodles were it acceptable among my bourgeois circle.
"What a liberated woman I am," I think smugly, "not to collude in the oppression that is a love of kitchen and cuisine." How I have always pitied those who tirelessly recall the dishes their mothers crafted for them, or who search for a higher taste on journeys through spice racks and recipe books. I have friends who go misty-eyed over Ottolenghi, who neurotically waste the Earth's resources by re-baking mis-shaped cupcakes again and again. The only hobby I can muster such sustained interest in, and deep-seated affection for, is drinking. It's the modern way, isn't it?
Seeing the rosy satisfaction and mutual pleasure that good food can bring makes me realise something: I am a bad woman. But food and I just don't mix – I don't say that from a self-righteous dieting perspective, I simply mean we don't understand each other. I prove as much by presenting our fellow holiday-makers with a globulous mass of crunchy, tasteless risotto. They chew through it like otters sharpening their teeth on gravel. "It's not true," my boyfriend counters. "The risotto was simply authentically al dente. You're good with food – you do an excellent impression of a tomato."
It hits me one day as I'm sitting, aperitif in hand, among a group of five men on the lawn, that the girlfriends and wives are inside cooking. Even those who aren't cooking are washing up or laying the table. I feel a mule-like, infantile stab of annoyance: I just don't want to be on kitchen duty when there are drinks to be had and a sunset to watch.
"Cooking's just one way of offering something sociable," says my friend Eve. "Different people offer different things: you know about the news and stuff, you use long words." But the ability to recall the names of political figures and to bamboozle people with polysyllabics hardly inspires the same sort of bonhomie as presenting a hungry table with a fatted calf does.
I will start cooking, I vow from my poolside lounger; I will learn recipes; nothing pre-packed will pass my lips; I'll buy an apron. I will do all this as soon as I get home, I nod, getting up to fetch myself another beer and some crisps.
Another thing I am not very good at is getting a tan. I've never managed it, on account of my natural hide being an albino shade of grey with the tendency to turn lobster when exposed to the sun's rays, before reverting to grey soon after.
It's just one more womanly club that I'm not part of, I realise, as I watch my friends oiling themselves up and turning over with impressive regularity from my perch under an enormous parasol. I feel a bit like a pre-teen stuffing her bra with socks so that she can hang out with the older girls. (I feel like this about a lot of things; I think it's to do with still having no discernible breasts or waist, despite having completed puberty almost a decade ago.)
It doesn't matter that, as my mum says every year, I'll be wrinkle-free in my dotage and will never be mistaken for Mick Jagger. That doesn't make any difference at the moment; I don't want to look like Jordan or one of Girls Aloud, but Coco Chanel on the Riviera, perhaps, or Gina Lollobrigida, would do fine.
My saviour of recent years has been the spray tan, being hosed at regular intervals with mahogany-coloured vegetable dye in emulation of the sun-struck classes. "I look like an Oompa Loompa with vitiligo," said a friend, looking at her oddly marbled orange hands, after she tried it on my suggestion. Being someone who goes naturally golden in the sun, she simply doesn't understand that hands which look as though they're permanently covered in iodine is just another cross we non-tanners have to bear.
But this year I shall have to stick out my Casper the Ghost aesthetic without resorting to fakery. I've just dyed my hair platinum-white: to spray-tan now, with such coiffure and lack of curves, would be to cast myself as a tawny brown frankfurter with a dab of mayo at one end. I'd rather look like a pickled white asparagus, thank you very much. 1