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Tracey Thorn: Real life always intrudes on holidays. That’s how it should be

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. Your own emotional weather. 

Not all sun and sea: a beach on the Italian island of Elba. Photo: Getty
Not all sun and sea: a beach on the Italian island of Elba. Photo: Getty
I’m writing this column on a sunbed by the pool. Don’t hate me. We’ve taken our holiday a little early this year. A week in a rented villa in the Med. It’s not like this is my life or anything. Although, as usual, life will keep intruding, even here.

It’s taken me years to face up to the fact that, as Neil Finn so eloquently put it, everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you. I was in denial about this for most of my adult life, insisting that holidays were nothing but joy, berating anyone who wasn’t having enough fun. But I’m getting better now, and coming to terms with the fact that, however idyllic the setting, you cannot help but bring with you everything that’s happening in your life, or in your head. Your own emotional weather.

I could also add that, because I’m an anxious person (I’ve told you this already), everywhere I go I take the contents of the bathroom cupboard with me. My suitcase resembles Mary Poppins’s holdall and can, on request, produce remedies, balms and unguents for any ailment you may choose to develop while travelling with me. This makes me a great person to go on holiday with if you’re prone to insect bites, allergic reactions to insect bites, infections of insect bites, or alarming complications arising from insect bites. Not such a great person to be around in the run-up to a holiday, when my anxiety levels rise at the same rate as the piles of lists.

This time, however, the weather proves ominous even before we leave home when we get the news that a friend who will be joining us on the holiday has just lost one of her closest friends to breast cancer. She’s going to come anyway, but warns us that she is sad, very sad. And then another friend due to meet us there has to cancel as he is in the grip of a debilitating depression and can’t get out of bed, let alone get on a plane. Sometimes the weather is so bad you can’t even take it with you. Sometimes rain stops play.

Holidays are supposed to be time out of time, perfect and dreamlike, but still they insist on coming at awkward moments, while we’re waiting for exam or biopsy results, or on the day a period starts. In his poem “Musée des Beaux Arts”, W H Auden talks about how moments of suffering take place “While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along”. Or indeed, on holiday. We can’t separate holidays from the rest of life, however hard we try.

Still, here I am in my bikini on my towel, and there is light, a lot of light, along with the shade. Other friends have arrived with their new baby, and nothing lifts the mood like the sight of that tiny creature, wriggling and gurgling, opening her eyes wide at the play of light through the leaves, all of us adults competing for her smile. Nobody’s weather changes faster than a baby’s, and the speed with which she can move from contentment to misery, nothing but a sneeze or a hiccup in between, is like a dramatisation of how close to each other those two states are.

The actual weather is interesting, too, bringing us a night-time Gothic thunderstorm, followed by a day of strong winds that leave shutters banging and send bottles of sun lotion skidding across the lawn. In between the hours in the pool and the sun, the youngsters have discovered Fawlty Towers and are practising their Manuel impressions. From somewhere inside the house, “I speak English VERY well, I learn it from a BOOK” comes ringing out. Hoots of laughter.

So, all in all, the week is working, but as I started out by saying, its tone isn’t entirely benign or neutral, any more than any other week.

There are teenage mood swings and menopausal mood swings; an earache, a splinter, an argument. A close friend texts to say that her mother has died. The boy bursts his football on a cactus. Through it all we bask in the constant warmth, the long evenings drawn out with wine and lazy chat, the things that enhance and soften everything.

And so, if anyone asks, I’ll say we had a lovely time. And we did, we really did. Look, here are the photographs to prove it. That view. Those smiles.

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