You can tell a holiday is looming in our household when the place starts to look unusually tidy. As if the effort of planning and packing for a trip away is not enough, I pile on the pressure by insisting that the house is spick and span before we go. It never looks tidier than the day we go away.
“Who are you tidying it for, burglars?” asked a friend, curious as to why I was in such a frenzy one morning.
Actually, it’s for me – so that when I walk back into the house on our return, I think “Ooh, how lovely – I’d forgotten how nice our house is!” rather than “Oh god, what a mess”.
Until now, I’d always assumed that when our cat Dorothy regards us with suspicion as we prepare for our holidays, it is because she equates the act of packing with being abandoned her for a fortnight, and she’s anxious as to whether she’ll get her daily biscuit ration. But as I cleared a longstanding collection of my husband’s shoes from the bottom of the stairs this afternoon, it occurred to me that she’s probably just bewildered by so much sudden change to her territory.
I also hit upon a simple way to keep a tidy house all year round: I just need to go on holiday more often.
(This post was originally written for the August issue of Hawkesbury Parish News.)
Over a decade after buying our first camper van, I like to think we’ve mastered the art of travelling light. We’ve acquired all sorts of tips and tricks that I’m compiling into a little book, along with some anecdotes about our adventures, to be called Travels With My Camper Van. (I’m a bit of a one for obvious book titles, me.)
One of my top tips is not to pack bags at all. You can load some stuff straight into the cupboards before you set off – food, toiletries, books, games. Clothes can be easily transferred on their hangers from your wardrobe at home to the van’s slim wardrobe. Non-hanging items, such as pyjamas and underwear, are best stashed into cheap Ikea laundry baskets – one per person, plus a spare. During our travels, we gradually transfer clothes, as we use them, from the clean baskets to the laundry one – and that gets unpacked straight into the utility room on our return home.
Or so the theory goes. We have had a few hiccups along the way. For example, we once carefully packed a weekend basket for the three of us and didn’t realise till we reached our destination, Ross-on-Wye, that we’d left the basked tidily on the bed at home. Fortunately Ross-on-Wye is well equipped with cheap clothes shops and charity shops, so we bought what we needed to remain clothed and hygienic until we returned home. (We always manage to boost the local economy wherever we go.)
Earlier this week, as it’s the half-term holiday (which means a week off school in this country), we were packing for three days and four nights away to walk the next stage of the Offa’s Dyke Path. That’s an ancient and historic footpath that traverses Wales. We’ve done about half of it so far. Laura had turned 11 a few days before, and in her enthusiasm to embark on this trip had packed her own basket before I had to ask her. This ability, like her new-found enthusiasm for making a cup of tea, is a welcome bonus of growing up.
Only when I took out her basket on the first day of the holiday did I realise my confidence in her efficiency had been misplaced. She had packed precisely one pair of leggings, one t-shirt and a party dress. She was clearly expecting this walking holiday to be more fun than we were. Her constant companion, Heather the rabbit, who serves as ventriloquist’s dummy rather than cuddly toy these days, had packed her roller skates.
Still, I could hardly take either of them to task for bad packing: I had only one walking boot. Fortunately I wear the same size shoes as my husband, and he never travels with fewer than three pairs.
As he’d be the first to remind me, travelling light is all very well, but it’s possible to go too far.
Still, a good time was had by all – and the fact that we’d packed so little made the task of unpacking afterwards even less irksome. Like mother, like daughter – ever the optimists.
Packing the ideal holiday capsule wardrobe for a 28 day tour of France in our camper van, I am torn between taking old clothes that I can jettison en route after wearing and aspiring to the well-groomed appearance of the average French woman.
I don’t want to clutter up the van with dirty laundry as space is at such a premium, nor do I want to use precious time and water (our tank is a small one) washing clothes. This is a holiday, after all.
I compromise and take smart casual dresses and separates, but ageing underwear that I can bin with a clear conscience. I’m gratified to discover that I have sufficient for the whole month and am bemused by the notion of leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of discarded knickers across the country.
I’ve bought three dresses expressly for the holiday, floaty linen and cotton frocks that are easily rinsed and dried overnight in Provencal sun. I abate any feelings of extravagance by remembering the experiences of a former colleague on her very first holiday abroad.
Margaret was about 22 and had never travelled far from her native Bristol. In anticipation of a week-long package trip to Spain, she invested in seven outfits from her catalogue, so that she’d have something new and special to wear every single day. The whole office was regaled with a detailed description of each outfit as the catalogue delivered it, and after waving her goodbye on the Friday, we looked forward all the following week to an account of her adventures on her return.
Sadly her investment did not pay great dividends. Pressed for a description, she just shook her head.
“I think abroad’s very over-rated,” she said sadly and would not be drawn any further.
I have higher hopes for my holiday in France.
My packing strategy for my small daughter Laura is similar to my own and I look forward to a month without laundry. Until Day 5 of our trip, when my husband announces, to my surprise, “Oh no, I’m down to my last t-shirt.”
Terse questioning reveals that he has brought with him just 5 t-shirts, 5 pairs of pants and 5 pairs of socks. Considering he has approximately 40 t-shirts in his wardrobe at home and more underwear than Laura and I combined, I am not sympathetic.
The situation is partly remedied by persuading him to throw caution to the winds and wear his sandals without socks. But I cannot extend the same philosophy to the other items of clothing in question.
And so for the rest of the holiday, the interior of the camper van is adorned at every stop with a varying array of his drying laundry, like a Tibetan prayer flag offered up to the god of hygiene.
So at least he can be considered hygienic. Not so, it seems, his swimming trunks – but that’s another story…
Packing. The very thought of it takes the edge off the excitement of going on holiday, at least till we’re on our way.
It shouldn’t be such a difficult task. As we spend most holidays in our camper van, we don’t have to bother with suitcases. We pack our possessions straight into the van’s streamlined cupboards, and here they stay, out of sight, until we need them. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.
Years ago, when we were child-free, holidays meant sailing in Greece. Packing in those days meant shoehorning toy-sized toiletries and capsule wardrobes into a collapsible sausage-shaped bag, ready for decanting into ship’s lockers on arrival. A camera, notebook and pen (plus daily access to yesterday’s English newspaper for my husband) were our only desert-island luxuries. Leaving behind the clutter of everyday life at home and at work was exhilarating. Forget feng shui – there were barely any material items to arrange.
Then in time, we had a baby to pack too. Until babies are about three, there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the child and the volume of luggage it requires. Just as Laura’s own baggage was starting to reduce – no more bottles, bibs or buggies – she hit toddlerhood, when she didn’t want to be confined to a boat. She needed playparks full of children to become her new friends. Any nationality, language no object, provided the children were her size.
And so slickly we transferred, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, onto land. We traded in our boat for a camper van. Drier, less lurching, and less likely to strand us due to weather conditions, it was a welcome and natural evolution from amphibian to reptile. And while I was in charge of packing, it was still soothingly minimalist too.
But now that Laura packs her own bags for holidays, new challenges have arisen. Numerous cuddly toys and dolls anthropomorphise into inseparable friends who would simply pine away if left at home without her. By the end of last year’s summer holiday, Laura’s entourage took over the entire vehicle. So for our half-term trip to the Highlands, I decide to set a new rule: one bag of toys per person. A serious constraint for Gadget Man, but a less daunting challenge for me: most of my toys are books to read or write in. It is easy to smuggle extra rations onto the van’s built-in bookshelf.
I expect a rebellion before our departure. But no, Laura sits demurely on her booster seat with an old black barrel handbag of mine bulging at her side. On her lap is a single cuddly toy: Heather the Best-Dressed Rabbit. (Heather even has her own gas-mask case for this term’s World War II topic). I’ve suggested that instead of taking lots of toys Laura pack a bag of Heather’s clothes to ring the changes along the way. I am pleasantly startled to see she’s taken my advice.
Pointing the van north, we hit the road. The half-grown crops in the Cotswold fields undulate as we pass, as if waving goodbye. They will seem so soft and green on our return from serious Scottish mountains.
Four hours later, when we stop for the night at Morecambe Bay, the true contents of the little black bag are revealed. With a coy, self-satisfied smile, Laura unzips it and begins to pull out an endless stream of toys. It’s like watching a conjuror do the handkerchief trick. Three rag dolls, four horses, two dogs, a bird…. all these and more are soon strewn around the camper van, leaving my husband and I scrabbling, as ever, for a space big enough to sit in. One bag of toys it is, so I cannot complain. But what an astonishing mastery of the art of packing for one so young. I sigh and sit down next to Heather. When the summer holidays come round, I think I’ll put Laura in charge of loading the van.
(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2011)