Fed up with heading ‘Up West’ in a Pat Butcher stylee every weekend, I recently colluded with some friends to take a break abroad. There was a time when the word ‘holiday’ only conjured up distant memories of jerking around on a dance floor to a tinny Madonna song, but as her credibility has grown so has my bank balance.
Now the big question every year is where shall we go? Barcelona, Bologna, Bogna? Any attempts at culture are swiftly dumped as thoughts of sun and sand enter the group psyche. Unfortunately every other British tourist is thinking the same thing. An all year round rainy season now means you’re as likely to meet as many Brits abroad as you are at home.
I’ve always thought that flying from Heathrow was an altogether classier affair, so naturally we ended up booking our flights to Crete from Gatwick. It’s at the airport, and most worryingly whilst boarding the aeroplane, that you realise exactly what lies in store for the next week: gangs of youths with skinny white legs; bottle blonde hair coarser than a horse’s tail; entire families with pony tails. It’s not a pretty sight. As Kath, Jason and I stumbled through passport control the threat of the package holiday loomed dark above our heads. Private villa or not, if you nearly miss a flight whilst poring over the pages of OK magazine, it’s a sign that the collective subconscious is kicking in.
Of course, being middle class, the whole point of going on vacation is to stress yourself out even more than you already are. The recent heat wave in the Balkans had Jason fretting over whether he would need to be stretchered directly from the plane to the nearest hospital. Kath was so panicked at the possibility of imprisonment for trafficking headache pills that she phoned the embassy to ask if Greece’s ban on codeine was true. And finally the added worry of meeting up with Nicola who was flying from Birmingham paled into insignificance when she announced that she had recently had an epileptic fit. I had no intention of doing a Nerys Hughes impersonation and made it quite clear that tanning was my only concern.
There was a time when Jason could have sun bathed for Britain. Accompanied by a bottle of olive oil and a roll of kitchen foil, he had the kind of tan you could see in the dark. Thankfully the eight-hour marathon stretches are now a thing of the past. I myself have been known to change ethnicity if I worship the sun God for too long, but when it gets to the point where all you can see are eyes and teeth it’s time to quit. This holiday was to see no more than a couple of hours a day on the beach, with sun factors so high we could have survived a direct nuclear hit. Pity our fellow countrymen did not have the presence of mind to do likewise. It’s one thing to permit yourself to look like a lobster, but to allow your children to frazzle should be a case for social services.
Having never been to Greece before I was utterly surprised by its beauty. How could such a popular tourist destination look so wonderful? But not just the landscape, the people were so much more attractive than our own. Being of Mediterranean descent I believed myself to be inconspicuous, but the natives can always smell a foreigner. I wouldn’t say that the Greeks are unfriendly (the British have a monopoly on that) but as we stayed in a villa in an ordinary residential area, the locals were inclined to look at us like rats for encroaching on their tourist free space. How can you blame them? There’s no use telling them you’re not like the rest of the slow moving, over weight, sunburnt Northern Europeans that swamp their little town every summer.
For example, when we asked where the local people went to eat and drink our host looked at us like we were insane and directed us to the nearest restaurant to provide a photo menu. Furthermore, I have never visited a country where I was unable to communicate in the native idiom to at least some degree. Being able to speak French and Portuguese means you can usually cover most Latin languages with the modern day Esperanto known as ‘Eurobable’. But when you can’t even pronounce the name of the street where you are staying it leaves you feeling exactly like the one thing you are trying not to be: a tourist.
The problem nowadays is that anybody that goes abroad independently likes to think of themselves as a traveller, not a tourist. My own little group managed to hold out for the first few days but soon it was down the tourist information centre to find out about day trips and boat excursions. Even then we were left in tourist limbo: a place between visitor and native, with no one wanting to claim us as their own. If one thing unites all people that visit different countries it is the fact that wherever they go they will always be a foreigner. Unfortunately the reason British tourists are held in such low esteem in Southern Europe is that no matter where they go it is always the natives that are foreign.