More years ago now than I would like to admit, my partner and I decided to take one of our first trips together, a weekend break in Nice. We booked our flights – then I wanted to book a hotel. My partner was puzzled. What for? Why not just look around and choose one when we arrived? It went completely against the grain for me, but I gave in. On our arrival in Nice, I was a bundle of nerves, worrying that we wouldn’t find anywhere to stay. As we walked from the train station to the city centre, we looked over the hotels we passed. Seeing them in real life made it much easier to judge which were good prospects. The first couple we tried were full, but, very quickly, we had found ourselves a lovely place to stay, and could get on with a wonderful weekend.
That early holiday gives a pretty good example of our individual approaches to holiday planning. Growing up, my family spent many years going to the same campsite in France, and quickly learned to book our pitch for the next year upon leaving the site at the end of the previous holiday. The one year we didn’t, we were stuck somewhere at the back by the toilet block, far away from the river, the views and the sun. My partner, on the other hand, grew up with cycling trips through Europe, where booking a hotel in advance was a seriously bad idea, as you never knew whether good roads would mean you made excellent distance that day, or a flat tyre might leave you far short of your target, with darkness falling.
In the years following that trip to Nice, we combined our different holiday styles. Each has its benefits, each its pitfalls. My partner’s style makes him flexible; able to get the most out of any given moment, and to adapt to cope with any hurdles that get thrown in our way. At the same time, being too relaxed is regrettable when we are hit by trouble that could easily have been avoided by a little foresight. His style has brought us to an unexpected pumpkin festival, and an amazing restaurant improbably tucked away on a campsite. It has also landed us at the wrong airport for our flight, and got us stuck doing stressful circuits of a forbidden traffic zone in Granada.
My style smooths our path by anticipating problems and looking up places to go before we even leave, letting us concentrate on enjoying the holiday itself while we are there. However, it also creates a lot of work and stress in advance, and can limit our freedom while actually on holiday. My style has given us glorious stays in nature parks where the accommodation would otherwise have been full, and let us plan detours to hidden gems that we would unknowingly have passed by. It also left us panicking on a dark mountain road in South Africa as delay after delay made it doubtful whether we would make it to our booked accommodation before it was closed for the night, and makes me suffer regular agonies in the lead-up to the holiday about what might go wrong and what I may have missed or forgotten.
As time has gone by, we have learned from each other. My partner has come to know the joys of planning, especially once he discovered the possibility of tweaking our route to include the maximum possible number of breweries. I have learned to limit my planning to the foreseeable, and not to stress about what might happen, but instead to trust in our ability to solve crises on the spot. It’s a combination that works very well.
The advent of corona upset this comfortable balance. 2020 should have been a great year, with our younger daughter finally old enough to let us travel further afield. We had just put the finishing touches to a grand road trip when the whole plan had to be unpicked, a depressing and enervating round of cancellations.
Holidays since then have required all of our planning and improvisational skills – but in a very negative way. Planning not to get the most out of our holiday, but to navigate the labyrinth of rules and restrictions required to get away on holiday at all. Improvisation has been called for on a wearyingly regular basis when governments have yet again changed those rules with little or no notice. And the scale of the situation overwhelmed our ability to cope. No planning, no improvisation can get you through a closed border, let you board a flight if a child tests positive for covid, or admit you to a restaurant if the corona app says Nay.
This year, the outlook seemed better. The 2020 road trip plan was pulled out of the drawer, dusted off and painstakingly updated. And indeed, the risks from corona seem quite low at this moment. Instead, we have been hit by the aftermath of the pandemic. Chaos at airports, steep rises in accommodation costs, scarcity of rental cars. Then, to top it all, severe flooding at our destination. Plan, change the plan, repeat. It has become a familiar routine.
Despite everything, it seems at present that our holiday can go ahead. Usually, I would have spent the last month happily browsing information, looking up breweries, diners, walks, look-out points to stop at along the way. Instead, I have done nothing except anxiously check the corona guidelines and flood status. I deliberately suppressed any excitement or anticipation, feeling somehow that experiencing pleasure at the thought of the holiday would increase the risk of its being cancelled, a ridiculous mix of Calvinism and superstition. Superstition also whispers that, since the holiday has been cancelled twice, it is doomed to always be cancelled. In this state of mind, it seems more appealing to simply give up and stay at home.
I know, however, that succumbing to this feeling would be a big mistake. Our cupboards are full of photo albums from previous holidays. Holidays in which we have faced food poisoning, severe storms, irate flat-owners, aggressive cows, rebellious toddlers. Despite it all, I look back on all these holidays with affection and nostalgia. That 2020 holiday thwarted by corona is literally the only occasion on which we have been unable to overcome the difficulties we faced. That makes for pretty good odds.
Gritting my teeth, I got my rational self to give my superstitious side a good talking to. Come on, seriously – looking forward to our holiday has zero effect on the chance that we can go, any more than putting on sunglasses causes it to rain. Whereas if I do nothing to plan, then it will diminish both the pleasure of anticipation now and our enjoyment later if the holiday goes ahead. Tentatively, I started looking through travel guides and park websites. Slowly, the pictures of jaw-dropping views, the photos of cheerful people on sunny terraces and the menus of mouth-watering food started to work their magic. I finally began to think of the holiday as something positive, a ray of sunshine on the horizon rather than a dark cloud.
That doesn’t mean my anxieties have evaporated. But I’ve managed to balance them with a more constructive point of view. If we can revive our tried-and-tested formula of planning and improvisation, then we can handle almost anything we come up against. For the rest, I’ll have to trust in something else – a bit of old-fashioned good luck. Third time’s the charm?