Four years ago, my partner and I and our children spent a month in Italy over the summer holidays. We'd rather extravagantly rented a relatively large villa, so we invited friends to come along on a rotating basis. As one set came in through the door, another set left etc. After a week or so, it felt a bit like the Big Brother house. What started out as being, in our mind's eye, the perfect way to spend a holiday – friends, sun, swimming pool, good wine, fantastic food, interesting conversation – ended up resembling a soap opera. For a start, we spent half the holiday in the local hospital. One friend got bitten by a scorpion. Another had a terrifying panic attack and thought he was dying. My partner got kidney stones and I had to rush him to A and E where my children spun the then-baby round in a hospital gurney. My best friend's son got an earache. Another developed hives from the heat.
Also, as the hosts, it was very stressful. When we weren't driving people backwards and forwards from the hospital/airport/local town, we were cooking, tidying up, cleaning and negotiating – endlessly negotiating – about where to go and what to do. Despite the crippling heat, my partner and I tended to want to go out and see places. Others wanted to stay at the villa. That was fine, but it took nearly half the morning for everyone to make up their minds. Then there was the problem with who would eat what – one friend suddenly decided she was vegetarian, another had to eat three meals a day regardless of how much we'd eaten the meal before. Some drunk a lot. Some didn't drink at all.
Then there was the tension around the children. Some children wanted to do nothing but swim and play on electronic devices. Then one child dropped her Game Boy in the loo and suddenly all that became an issue because the children had to share. Problems built up. Some parents didn't mind if their children played games all day and then went to bed as and when. Others wanted their children to "do" things and go to bed relatively early in the evening to give them some "adult time". Some parents wanted the children to eat with the adults and come out of an evening. Others couldn't have thought of anything worse.
By the time I came home I was exhausted.
So, I ask myself, why do people holiday with their friends? Every year, hundreds of hopeful people set off on holiday with sets of other people they think they like. This is the theory behind holidaying with friends. You think it will be fun. You and your partner look at each other one day – generally a cold and wet windy one – and think "wouldn't it be great if we went on holiday". Then you look at each other and at your children and think, "better still, wouldn't it be great if we went on holiday with some friends". Then you think of all the friends you know and like, all those ones you have spent boozy Sunday lunches with, drinking wine and eating good food while your amassed children have merrily rampaged around the house and garden. You then transpose this idea to France/ Spain/wherever and, hey presto, it seems like the best idea you've ever come up with.
This is because there will have been billions of other people who have told you what fun they've all had when they've holidayed with their friends. They tell tales of balmy summer nights, sitting al fresco, drinking wine, having intelligent conversation, playing games, swimming, dancing, falling in to bed at goodness knows what time in the morning only for it to start all over the next day. And all while the children have had immense amounts of fun playing together and entertaining each other.
So you decide holidaying with friends is a Good Idea. The adults will have other adults to talk to, adults that they actually like. The children will have other children to play with and, consequently, stop bugging the adults. Everyone will get on and it will be the best holiday you ever had.
Then it all goes wrong. Of course it does. It's just that no one ever tells you this.
The problem with holidaying with friends is that you spend 24/7 together. Whereas before, back in the real world, you had lunch or dinner or even a whole day together in perfectly enjoyable harmony, on holiday you can't get away from each other. This means that instead of merely seeing the parts of their characters of your friends you tend to see at home, when they are happily within their comfort zone, you are experiencing them out of context.
Suddenly the laid-back friend you play squash with and hang out with, turns out to be a control freak. There's always a control freak on holiday. There's also a strange social hierarchy that goes on which really revolves around who is in charge. Someone will have booked the villa/suggested the holiday/sorted out the payments/suggested flights/rented the car. This means that person is, in essence, in charge. That may be fine but the person in charge may not actually want to be in charge. Or, as is most common, another person in the party wants to take that role and consequently, a sort of silent power play goes on.
I witnessed this when I went on holiday with some girlfriends. We all went to Spain, leaving our partners and children behind. On day one, as we wandered round the local supermarket, I heard one friend say to the other "why are you getting anchovies?" Then, "Oh, really. You include anchovies in your Caesar salad?" I knew then that we were on for a bout of competitive cooking. I spent the next few days watching while everyone very nicely criticised what everyone else made. The kitchen was so full of people grinding herbs and tasting food and saying things like, "I'd put more seasoning in that sauce if I were you" and "dill in a sauce vierge? That's novel", that I decided to spend my time on the verandah and only get involved in order to do the washing up.
This all gets much worse when you put children in to the mix. Nothing is worse on holiday than other people's children. Back in the UK, your children have muddled along pretty well. You have spent time with their parents and you all seem to have the same values, think similar things, enjoy doing the same types of activities but then, suddenly, on holiday everything changes. There are flashpoints everywhere; food, bedtimes, television watching, who has brought what with them. I went away with a friend who said, "let's agree now not to take any electronic gadgets for the kids" but once we'd got to our cottage, her children appeared with portable DVD players, laptops, PSPs, the works. My son had a book and some colouring pencils.
Then there's the problem of who eats what and when. Some parents limit their children to one ice cream a day. Some, like me, say "you're on holiday! Have two if you like!" only to then feel immediately guilty as the more disciplinarian parents give me a disapproving look. Some parents don't stick to a bedtime (me!), others are determined to keep their little darlings on the same routine as they have been at home.
There can be serious repercussions from all this. I've had friends of mine go on holiday with other friends in a fug of warmth, happiness and mutual admiration, only for them to come back angry, sad, disillusioned and not friendly to each other at all. The arguments have always centred around the children. "Her child spat at my child and she did nothing and when I told him off she got upset", or "her children wake up all night and make so much noise and then they woke my kids up and it wasn't fair."
Some good can come from this though. Oddly enough, holidaying with friends can do wonders for your relationship. In Italy, my partner and I would go to bed at night and spend hours dissecting everyone else's family. "Can you really believe he said that to her?" we'd say. Then we'd go on to study their parenting skills and, having discovered we were far better parents and a much happier couple, we'd fall asleep feeling very pleased with each other and ourselves.
'A Storm in a Teacup' by Lucy Cavendish (Penguin £6.99) is out now