You may think that you've been lucky with your relatives, up to and including those who have entered your life as part of a package. You've made peace with your siblings and even your parents. Your parents-in-law are actually quite human. Your brothers' wives are really rather sweet. Rather than putting up with your sister's boyfriend, you look forward to seeing him, even with your nephews and nieces in tow.
Well, beware. Because you are now off your guard. You have been softened up. And when someone makes the fatal suggestion "Why don't we all go on holiday together this year?" you might say yes, and even volunteer to pick up a brochure on Large Villas In The Sun. Don't do it.
Why? Because on a full-blown family holiday the thin veneer of amiability that takes such effort to build up peels away to reveal what lies underneath. Agreeing to spend time in close proximity for a prolonged period with people with whom regular contact normally constitutes no more than an occasional weekend or perhaps a decorous Sunday lunch is asking for trouble. Everyone on holiday really wants to do things their own way, and this is fundamentally incompatible with mucking in as one big happy family unit, however Walton-esque you may like to think you are.
When a family gets together, the whole scenario has a ghastly tendency to turn into a hideous power struggle. A few potential flashpoints: you want to relax but your mother wants everyone assembled by half past eight in the morning ready for a carefully programmed day of activities. Or it turns out that your grandfather still has some freakish notion that he is Head Of The Family and behaves accordingly. Or you discover that your brother-in-law is a manic control freak who can't function if he doesn't have his dinner every night at seven on the dot. "And," adds one necessarily anonymous survivor bitterly, "you find that any children with you get immediate and huge precedence and you have to volunteer to do all sorts of boring things with them and babysit for them or everyone else thinks you are incredibly mean and self-centred."
If the rest of the gang won't take no for an answer and you find yourself en route en masse, don't let anyone in a moment of largesse volunteer to foot the whole bill. Insist on sharing. Because if someone else pays they will feel they have infinitely increased the power of their vote when it comes to deciding how each happy day should be spent, and they won't be far wrong. It's hard to confess you'd rather have your nails pulled out with hot pliers than trail round some dreary stately home if the only reason you have the opportunity to do so is because someone else has forked out for a country house hotel.
Similarly with meals out: split the bill on each occasion rather than deciding in advance to take turns, because anyone who is surviving on a pension/on benefits or has six children to support will inevitably find their night falls on the mass visit to the posh restaurant. The yuppie singletons will end up with the cheap-and-cheerful pizza night.
An essential survival hint: make sure you take your own car. Don't accept any lifts, because if you don't have your own transport you will be stuck. Sightseeing buffs will find themselves glued to the beach because the local bus to the nearest outpost of civilisation only runs at 6am every second Tuesday. Sunlovers will be horrified at finding themselves being hauled round cathedrals.
"We went off to a villa in Italy with my parents-in-law and brother-in- law's family," recalls one traumatised group holiday veteran. "We either had to stay put or trail around with them because they'd driven us down. We felt like a spare part, or like two kids in the back of the car being dragged round by their parents." And at least if you have wheels, if it really comes to the point where you can't stand it any longer, you have a means of escape.
Hiring a lovely big house in the country may seem like a wonderful idea, but the knotty problem of who's doing the cooking can scupper any painstakingly constructed family bonhomie. One person will have drawn up an elaborate rota and brought the ingredients to knock up show-offy gourmet banquets on the days when it's their turn. So it's a shame when the fully equipped kitchen turns out to boast six corkscrews but no egg-whisk. At least one other person will spend the whole fortnight (you booked for three weeks? you mad fool) muttering "We're on holiday for chrissakes. Can't we just get a takeaway?"
"My sister-in-law turned up with a huge crate of ingredients when we went to the south of France. She insisted on cooking every night and drove us all crazy by being such a martyr," says another family-holiday born- again-refusenik. "We were in a part of the world with the best fruit, veg, cheese, charcuterie, you name it, and all we had to do was go out and buy it and put it on the table. But she kept on churning out great bowlfuls of pasta. Why she didn't go to Italy is beyond me. I felt I had to help out so we both ended up sweating over a hot stove in Mediterranean heat. I wanted to kill her. Good thing there were no carving knives in the place."
Any teenagers who have been dragged along will be able to add to the heady mix by announcing disdainfully they have become vegan just as the bouillabaisse or vitello al tonno is dished up. While smaller children will turn their noses up at anything that isn't fish fingers. It's more than likely that at least three different menus will be on the go each day, a scenario that can only lead to anguished jockeying for position round the stove.
The case of wine that was meant to last the whole holiday will mysteriously be gone after three days. Be prepared to make lots of trips to the off- licence or local equivalent. Stress will make you drink more than you have since the days when you were a student, even in front of the in-laws, but you are now less able to handle it and consequently will spend a lot of the time with a filthy hangover. Oh, and there will never be enough hot water for everyone to have a shower consecutively. Make sure you get to the bathroom first, even if it means shoving your poor old dad out of the way.
Sex: you may well not be having any. Attempting to get amorous when you know your granny is in the room next door is not a hugely alluring prospect. If you are married to your partner, you will probably be all right, because even your parents may assume that you do it sometimes, but if you are not, you may find out that you have had separate rooms booked for you by an Older Person who failed to notice the Sixties happening.
It's pretty much guaranteed that someone on the holiday will get ill at some point. Old people or children are prime candidates. Most likely they will have left their preferred medication on the bedside table at home. Pretend you have no inkling of the necessary language or you will end up at the local pharmacy attempting to explain "My grandmother suffers from prickly heat" to a bemused chemist. If no one actually gets sunstroke or dysentery, someone will be bitten by a dog, spider or snake, or possibly attacked by a large and ferocious insect. For one reason or another there will be a visit to the local casualty department. Anyone who isn't part of the hospital trip will remain in stasis back at the hotel or villa, unable to go out and get on with the holiday because it looks as though they just don't care enough about the victim's plight.
"We were in Greece, 10 of us ranging from grandparents to kids in a small hotel," remembers someone who now restricts themselves to singles breaks. "My grandmother couldn't stand the heat and sun and spent most of the time lying in a darkened room, which was cheerful for everyone. She kept saying `Don't mind me, just go out and enjoy yourselves, we've paid enough for this holiday' which put a real damper on proceedings. Then my nephew was stung by some kind of jellyfish and his leg swelled up like a football, which meant we spent two whole days hanging about the hotel waiting for him to get better enough to go back to the beach."
By the time you eventually make it back to the oasis that is your own home you'll be pondering the advantages of being an orphan, alone in the world. Some even find their relationships never recover. "It was seeing my brother-in-law cutting his toenails by the side of the pool when we all went off to Spain that really horrified me," says one traumatised sister-in-law. "We've hardly seen my sister's family since."
8 Don't go anywhere you're likely to bump into someone who knows you.
8 Do remember to disappear and take some time for yourself.
8 Don't talk about anything controversial. Politics, religion, money and sex are no-go areas.
8 Do remember to count to 10 when they go on about how great your ex- husband was.
8 Don't think you can take your parents down to the local disco and not die of embarrassment.
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