Holidaying by house rules

Image of Susie Boyt

Whenever I go to a hotel, I straightaway make a long study of that often leatherette-bound ring binder containing the hotel’s services in alphabetical order. I would like the job of creating one of these compendia one day, ensuring that the general tone resembles two parts-Red Cross tent to five parts-pleasure manual with a pinch of trip to the headmistress’s study thrown in, in case of bad behaviour.

In these books I once saw it asserted that all babysitters would come equipped with advanced child psychology qualifications, not perhaps the most reassuring information. I have seen a fellow advertised who will come and read you Jane Austen at bedtime, or something more racy. I have also seen it stated that picnic hampers with liveried caddies would be happy to follow you on your walk if you merely tipped the right person the wink. (Though no mention of cost generally indicates prices higher than the skies.) Yet perhaps the most exciting chapter in these alluring volumes is the one relating to breakfast.

Hotel managers know that most of their guests will fall asleep perusing, if not actively memorising, the breakfast menu. The words “pastry basket, assorted preserves”, which is only an entry-level hotel breakfast, repeated over and over again, is a mantra as fully reassuring as “I am safe and all is well”, which, let’s admit it, does carry the idea of yet another brave flight from despondency.

In a rented holiday home in France this week I have spent hours excitedly pouring over the House Book, a blue plastic document folder with clear pockets for inserts. Yet this has been a largely demoralising task, as I want something from this catalogue that it simply won’t provide. “In the local village two hat-wearing octogenarian widows dispense old-stock ribbon in spectacular colourways at knock-down prices,” it does not say. “At the end of the lane lives the severe yet charming great-nephew of the actor Jean Gabin, who loves nothing more than showing his family albums to breathless English type,” is also disappointingly absent. Where are the prize-winning local croissanteries? The colourful fisherman who still sings shanties at the seashore? Where the church, where the steeple? Where the son et the lumière? Do we have to come up with all the holiday-making ourselves? Crikes!

I have a friend who travels the world and always sends me the most boring postcards she can find: a crossroads next to a police station, or a block of flats framed by a closed kebab house and some limp marigolds. Well, this book has a similar feel.

It has long lists detailing attractions that it claims, in parentheses, are “vastly overrated” or “rather dull”, as well as being a 90-minute drive away. Is it some kind of joke? A joke with a vital missing element – humour?

The most exciting moment occurs in the instruction NOT to cut lemons directly on to the marble worktops. (For what do they take me? If they saw my worktops they would probably weep and die!)

It was all rather baffling. Was the subtext: “You have alighted in an area of very scant promise”, or more proudly: “There is no need whatsoever at any time to leave this place”? But that’s exactly how I feel about my own house. Were they, like me, home birds of the first order whose travel philosophy is, at bottom: “You move, you die”? What’s that phrase that means you are very excited about coming home even before you have set off on your holiday? Phobic?

I started wondering what a House Book at my home might offer in terms of local recreation and amusement.

Why, at the end of my street there is a veritable resort for the urban holidaymaker! Next to the betting shop, there is an Indian takeaway, a tooth-whitening centre, a Chinese takeaway, a Japanese restaurant that even opens for lunch on Fridays, a mirror shop and a newly opened fish-and-chip outlet that sells, perhaps in inverted commas, that divine delicacy of the devil-may-care, the deep-fried Mars bar.

In my book, under “W” I would write: “Window cleaner: useless but very quick and cheap; window cleaner: good but very indiscreet and extremely right-wing one (but he truly does provide a window into the lives of the stars): and my preferred man, whose slogan is: ‘Your pane is my gain.’”

Under “L”, I would list the café at the corner, where top-notch legal advice is readily available with your coffee while fish swim eagle-eyed in a long aquarium.

“H” would have hills and heaths with times of year for circuses and fairs.

“G” would list the many outlets catering for the local Goth community, a parade I take my daughters to as often as possible for I have dim hopes they’ll experience a cautious, quiet and thoughtful teenage stage. (A reckless Goth is a thing of great rarity.)

“N” would contain details of a nearby hotel where they offer a nuptial package of wedding breakfast and evening reception for 100 people for the flat fee of £999. I love the idea that we might rent out our home to people moved to tie the knot during their stay.

It’s something I can’t quite see happening round here.

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