Sunday, 30 August 2009

A Cautionary Tale

Sorry. This is much too long. I have been away from my blog for almost a month and it appears that I now have verbal (non-verbal?) diarrhoea as a result. But having spent absolute ages trying to get it 'right' (and I still don't feel that I have), I simply can't bring myself to edit it down. Sorry.

It has been more than two weeks since my girls and I arrived back from Malta. Until now, I have been completely unable to write a word about our experience. As holidays go, it wasn't the best. I ended my last post by saying 'Please God, don't let it be a disaster of epic proportions'. While it would be an exaggeration to say that it was a disaster (no luggage or children went astray, the plane stayed aloft, no one drowned) the truth is, it wasn't far off.

To recap: in a fit of Pinot Grigio-induced, late-night panic, facing a complete dearth of holiday plans (after Brixton Man and I parted company in June) I had gone online and booked a Single Parent Holiday at the Qawra Palace Hotel, St Paul's Bay.

Lesson #1: Never, ever stay anywhere that has the word 'palace' in its name. Unless of course it is a proper palace and you know the maharajah.

Lesson #2: Never, ever make online arrangements after midnight, unless you are completely sober and can recall your credit card limit/bank overdraft without a moment's hesitation.

To be honest, I did feel slightly wary about the prospect of holidaying with a bunch of complete strangers. What if they all came from Up North and I couldn't understand their accents? What if they were just plain weird? But I assumed that amongst the motley crew of single parents there would surely be at least one adult with whom I could have a fascinating conversation (along the lines of 'Just when exactly did Tom Cruise stop being sexy?) of a balmy evening, beside a sparkling sea, sipping on a tall, minty mojito. And I was quite sure, even if I only made one friend, that my gregarious, gorgeous girls would make friends with all the other kids in no time and that they would then spend the rest of the holiday frolicking in the sparkling sea/swimming pool with their lovely new mates.

Lesson #3: Never, ever assume anything.

THE HOTEL (briefly: I'm not even going to mention the cockroach...)

I am not a wimp. Really, I'm not. I love camping (though my daughters do not) and I have roughed it quite happily in some pretty dodgy places around the world. But after we arrived at our (so-called) four star hotel and had found our way up to our room, I felt like crying. It was nothing (and I mean, nothing) like in the photographs.

Lesson #4: Photographs lie.

The hotel was situated on a busy main road. And I mean busy - all day and all night. On the other side of the busy main road ... WTF?! ... was the hotel's teeny weeny swimming pool (albeit with an underground tunnel, linking the two). From our third floor balcony we could see, lolling in and around the too-tiny pool, what appeared to be hundreds of extras from a Mad Max movie. Most of the men had skinny little ponytails and enormous beer bellies and tattoos. Most of the women looked miserable or angry (or both) and had beer bellies and tattoos, too. Some of the children had beer bellies. And tattoos. It was not a pretty sight.

The view inside our room was hardly better. The bathroom was miniscule, with chipped tiles, mouldy grouting and a constantly dripping tap. Our bedroom was only a tad bigger. Someone had squeezed an ugly little Z-bed between two single beds and the balcony door. There was hardly any space for the three of us and our three small pull-along suitcases. Looking at that Z-bed I was overwhelmed with sadness. It seemed to shriek 'single parent holiday'... and made me long for home.

Eldest Daughter gamely volunteered to take the Z-bed (bless her) and sat down. The Z-bed snapped shut with a terrible crunch and Eldest Daughter disappeared. At this point, I burst into tears. Fortunately, Youngest Daughter started to laugh, as did Eldest Daughter from somewhere inside the Z-bed. Bless them both. I managed to pull myself together and laughed too, although I suspect I sounded hysterical. We took a few photos of Eldest Daughter fighting her way out from inside the folded mattress and decided to go for a swim. Ten minutes later, bobbing about in a deliciously warm Mediterranean Sea (we made the decision to avoid the pool completely) things started to look up. We resolved to make the best of things. As Youngest Daughter said, 'It could waaaaay worse. At least it's nice and hot and we're not camping in a muddy field in Devon.'

THE OTHER PEOPLE (Week 1) - all names have been changed

Later that evening, with great excitement and hope in our hearts, we met up with The Other People. Some had arrived on the same Heathrow plane as we had, others had flown in from Gatwick, Manchester and Bristol. We eyed each other warily, children and adults alike. No doubt we were all thinking the same thing: who are we going to be friends with? Lorraine (our lovely Maltese tour guide/holiday rep, whose job it was to chaperone us for the duration of our stay) explained what was on offer in the days ahead: day trips to sandy beaches, a bus journey to the capital city of Valletta, a ferry ride to the island of Gozo. We were free to do as much - or as little - as we liked. Since the girls and I had decided we loathed our hotel so completely, we signed up for absolutely everything.

But OH! it was heavy going.

All the mums in our little group (with one exception) were just so very... sad. There was so little laughter, such an absence of joy. Here we were, on holiday - supposedly here to have a good time!? - and yet everyone seemed inexplicably miserable. Our group comprised entirely of single mums, seven in all. Almost all, bar sweet Jenny from Bristol, seemed depressed to a greater or lesser degree. Between us, we had nine daughters and two sons. Our children's ages ranged from fifteen down to two. We got together each morning over breakfast, spent our days together (though not all day, every day) and re-assembled at dinner time. It was excruciating, every time. No one had anything to say. The other mums sat in silence, as if in detention. Some hardly spoke to their children. One or two didn't even seem to like their children. And this is how it was, day in, day out. It made me so sad. No one wanted to talk about Tom Cruise or Brangelina. Or Plato. It made me so grateful that I have two articulate children with whom I could have an interesting conversation. Apart from a few chats with sweet Jenny and her equally sweet little Olivia, I spent the whole week talking with my girls.

I hadn't gone on holiday expecting to meet other single parents who would immediately open up about their lives (though that would have been interesting) but I did think that, as we all had single parenthood in common, we might knock along merrily in a kindred-spirit, 'we're-all-in-this-together' kind of way. But no.

Every single mum (bar Jenny) was relentlessly uncommunicative, monosyllabic and miserable. Initially I thought that perhaps they were just a bit shy (or perhaps rendered speechless, as I had been, by the awfulness of our hotel) but as the days ticked by, it became clear that each and every one was ... how can I put this, without sounding horribly patronizing and hideously judgemental?!?... socially inept. I can't think of any other way to describe it. They didn't appear to know how to start a conversation, or even how to continue with one when asked a simple leading question. A few of them had difficulty making eye contact.

It was a shock. It was also frustrating and heart-breaking, too. And it got me thinking: does being single for too long (most of the other mums had been on their own for years) gradually erode your social skills? Can being a single parent make you so completely dispirited that you can't even crack a smile when on holiday? Does it make you uninterested - and uninteresting? Can it make you feel ashamed?

They all seemed to be so defeated, so lacking in optimism, so hopeless.

Fortunately, the children were a bit better. At least they all spoke to each other. But so many of them seemed sad, too. And terribly, terribly serious. They didn't seem like 'other children' - they were too subdued, too humourless. Too grown up. One little girl, Ruby, was especially subdued (and even seemed afraid of her mother). My girls did their best to make friends but it was heavy going for them, too. In the end, they just stuck together. By the end of the first week, all three of us had given up trying to 'make friends'. We held our breath and awaited the arrival of The New Lot, who swept in at the beginning of our second week...

THE NEW LOT (Week 2) - all names have been changed

Oh joy!!!! The New Lot were quite the opposite!!! Feisty, funny, garrulous and good fun.

On the day of their arrival (thank you, God!) a few of The Other People left. Those that remained from Week 1 kept themselves to themselves and stayed silent.

But happily, the four 'new' single mums (and one adorable dad from Kent) who breezed in for Week 2 with their happy, smiley assortment of seven children (six girls and a boy) were exactly what we'd hoped for all along.

Needless to say, it utterly transformed our holiday.

My girls made a few proper friends, who they gleefully snorkelled and swam with for the remainder of our stay; I sat beside the pool of a balmy evening and finally had my 'Tom Cruise' conversation.* And instead of avoiding talking about ourselves and our lives and our reasons for being on a Single Parent Holiday (as had been the case throughout the first week) the single parents of Week 2 shared their stories, laughed, cried, swapped hilarious anecdotes, laughed some more. No one appeared to be embarrassed about the fact that they were single. One lovely mum, Sarah from Surrey, who had a fabulous sense of humour and two delightfully confident daughters, was actually proud of having escaped a miserable marriage

All of their children laughed, often.

Lesson #5: Things can only get better.

* A few of us agreed that he had never been sexy. Others felt that it was immediately after 'Top Gun', when he hooked up with Nicole Kidman to do the ridiculous 'Days of Thunder'.