AUGUST IS drawing to a close, an annual event that produces sighs of relief from anyone who lives and works in a certain part of Portugal, which sees its population more than quadruple for these four weeks of the year – the Algarve.
Anyone who has children at school, be they English, Irish or German, heads south, as do the multitudes of Portuguese from the north of the country or working abroad. For us, Algarveans, life becomes intolerable. Shopping? You must be joking! Most holidaymakers’ second favourite past time, after rushing to the beach, seems to be the pursuit of gaining a Guinness Book of Records entry – how many human beings can you cram into a supermarket?
The lunch hour scavenging experience begins with the hunt for a trolley and ends inevitably in a never-ending queue containing innocents who have not had their fruit and veg weighed. If the body could take it, a 31-day crash diet would be the simplest solution. Alternatively, we could stockpile tinned or frozen food, ready-to-eat dinners, or keep an egg producing chicken.
Cholesterol levels apart, this master plan proved unworkable in my case. The kitchen shelf takes only two days’ worth of baked beans, my freezer just about accommodates ice cubes, a microwave is not in my budget and pets are not allowed. I considered avoiding shopping expeditions by eating out every night, but even negotiating the battery of pushchairs blockading most restaurants’ entrances, finding a table or attracting the waiters’ attention are akin to splitting the atom with a blunt axe.
If you have a car, don’t use it. Avoiding fellow road users reversing up one-way streets, travelling on the wrong side of the road, or even coming at you on a roundabout is nerve wrecking enough. Worse, if you live anywhere near a beach like me, parking only becomes possible in September again. Fortunately, my Vespa is capable of negotiating most of these obstacles, given that the driver is alert to every possible eventuality, but not everyone is that lucky.
Then, there are the tourists – the lifeblood of this region – themselves. Correct me if I’m wrong, but surely, especially in the current climate of economic crisis, having saved up all year to be able to afford a week or two in the sun, away from it all, these escapees can be expected to be happy having made it here. None of it!
I make hay while the sun shines and am active in all kinds of situations involving holidaymakers during the season. You would not believe how many glum faces, seriously stressed out and ill-tempered people there are walking about. What is wrong? The Algarve offers everything you could possibly want from a relaxing chill-out period: sun, sand, sea, fun and a native population that is happy and willing to make your stay an enjoyable one.
Maybe some people are just not designed for foreign climes. Take the example of David Quantick, a columnist in The Sunday Express. His account of going abroad had me rolling between the barstools recently, so I am going to share some of his gems with you. He says that just like some people are allergic to cats – and cats know this and deliberately harass those afflicted – other people enjoy that kind of relationship with holidays.
The writer recalls occasions when he has been ‘kidnapped’ much to his bewilderment by relatives, family or friends, finding himself at a vile airport full of screaming kids, Belgian pensioners and 400 shops all selling luggage straps. Quantick thinks his dislike of holidays stems from childhood experiences when annual trips to his grandparents in Wales were the standard dish.
He says Wales was a lot harder to get to in those days and when you did arrive, it was closed. Most of the holiday was spent stuck in traffic in boiling hot sunshine, breathing in the exhaust fumes of a thousand Morris Minors. Sound familiar?
Men of a certain age, the reluctant tourist claims, hate going away more than most people do. And he gives his reasons: they will probably be paying for every damn thing, while still having to organise everything from the journey, flights, hotel and a thousand other things. A horrible obstacle course that could so easily have been avoided sitting at home watching Man. United on the telly, with a chilled can of larger and a Chinese takeaway.
It starts with the actual booking of the thing… Going online makes hacking into the Pentagon war computer look simple, so that leaves the local travel agent. The dusty toy airliner in the window is already off-putting, but you have no choice but to push on. You lose your mind, believe the lying brochure for 10 seconds and, before you know it, you have given your life savings to a girl in a nylon blazer who can’t spell Faro. Which brings us back to the airport…
Having debated with yourself whether it would be more economical to sell your car rather than paying the exorbitant sum demanded for parking it, you may be lucky enough not to find yourself on a British Airways flight. Because were that the case, you would discover why terminals are called terminals – you may well never leave there. When, many hours later, you arrive at a different airport, hot, sweaty and rumpled, perhaps minus a suitcase or two, you realise that you are abroad.
Abroad, to the grumpy, ageing, over-35 xenophobe, is a special hell, full of people who have grown up speaking the wrong language (i.e. not English), beer-faced fellow Brits who have seemingly gone abroad just to wake up hungover in a different country, impossibly chic French, and overweight, leather patented Germans insisting on being louder that the brood of six screaming kids from County Kildare.
The horrified traveller then wakes up in his hotel only to find that the very same gang has demolished the breakfast buffet, the French have stripped down to the skimpiest of bathing outfits and are arguing with the harassed receptionist for what to all intents and purposes appears to be an exercise in demonstrating Gallic superiority, and the vocal Germans have gone quiet in the reassuring knowledge that no court ruling can deprive them of their deckchairs. New, but no less daunting to the intrepid Englishman, is a horde of extremely hirsute buttock-groping Italian maniacs. His nightmare is complete.
Not that the holidaymaker restricts his allergy to excursions to places away from the British Isles. To him, Scotland is grey and wet, Wales green and wet, and Ireland full of mad people. He cannot imagine anything worse than a domestic vacation either. The North is full of miserable people who don’t talk much and the South is full of miserable people who talk all the time – like Cockneys. In between lie barge trips – two weeks in a wooden box going down an artificially created, mind-numbing waterway, holiday camps reminiscent of Stalag II and the Lake District – an interminable hike in search of a pub that is not closed for refurbishment.
Now, tongue-in-cheek or not, if you don’t want to travel, if the whole concept of enjoying different cultures, customs and culinary delights goes against the grain, just don’t. After all, an Englishman’s castle is his home. We, who have opted to become permanent tourists in the Algarve, or elsewhere, may find August in particular troublesome, but that is only a minor irritation that we look back on fondly once a sequence of bleak and rainy winter days have us dreaming of the balmy days of summer.
• For more wonderfully irreverent holiday observations, read Grumpy Old Men On Holiday by David Quantick, published by Harper & Collins and available at most English language bookshops.
By Skip Bandele