Holidays are supposed to be a time when you have more fun than you normally do back home — a carefree intermission for experimentation, decadent relaxation and most importantly plenty of sex. But if you’re married and your in-laws live on the other side of the world then the chances are that most of your holidays will involve staying with them. So for me, holidays usually consist of sleeping in a rickety bunk bed in a faux-log cabin in the great Australian outdoors with only a paper-thin studded wall to muffle my amour from my husband’s parents. In other words, much like my teenage years, they involve no sex.
Anyone who lives in an inner-city flat will know there is an unspoken agreement with your neighbours that no matter how loudly you can hear their television/music/toilet flushing you are wilfully unable to hear them having sex. This is the code, the thin veneer that enables city-dwellers to both function without performance anxiety and resist high-fiving the overweight guy next door on the morning after.
However, the code does not apply when your in-laws are next door. There is no magic hearing impairment then, only the possibility of the longest breakfast in history. Sharing a holiday home with your in-laws is a situation designed to put even the most passionate lovers off their stride.
I happen to like my in-laws. They are smart, funny people and remarkably welcoming. Some people successfully live in a house with several generations of their extended family and there is no such thing as mystery (these people are either far more liberated than I am or they aren’t screamers). Not me. I am English and an Englishwoman’s home is her castle. I only share that castle in times of siege or major sporting event (I have a very small castle).
My husband’s parents have a big house (they aren’t rich, they’re Australian) and there is more than enough space for a decent siege. His childhood bedroom (of which more later) is a good fifty feet from his parents’ room. However, we don’t often get to spend much time in this solidly built, sound-proof idyll because custom dictates that during the trip we must actually ‘go on holiday’ with my in-laws. The fact that we have already travelled 9,000 miles through eight time zones makes no difference. A holiday is not a holiday until you are in uncomfortably close proximity in a camper van. Anything that doesn’t involve this falls into the category of a ‘visit’.
At this point I should mention something — my mother-in-law is desperate to have grandchildren. Last time she came to the UK to see us it took her one minute fifty-three seconds from clearing customs to mention this. I timed her for a bet with my husband. I won. Her need is now so great I would not be surprised if the next time we stay over there is a thermometer and a turkey baster on the bed beside the guest towels. However, every time we go away with them on holiday we are mysteriously booked a room with narrow bunk beds. The message seems clear: we want you to have children, we just don’t want you to make them on holiday with us.
They are not the only ones who feel uncomfortable. When you’re staying in a cabin that has walls made of cereal packets, the pretence that they can’t hear you in the next room evaporates the first time you hear them cough. The best we have managed is a quick fumble. Anything else causes too much creaking.
The one and only time that going away with the in-laws has involved a conventional hotel, the rooms had adjoining doors. For anyone unfamiliar with the hilarious Frasier-style possibilities of adjoining doors, there are two types: ones with two doors that both lock and ones with one door that both parties have a key to. Incidentally, apparently Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street have adjoining doors. I bet you’ll sleep badly tonight knowing that, I know I do.
Last time we went away with the in-laws my husband and I had to resort to sneaking off in the car to get some action. We assessed several lay-bys and car parks for privacy before selecting one — only to discover it had motion-sensitive lights. This kind of thing never seems to happen to teenagers in American high school dramas.
Lest I seem like a nymphomaniac (writing for ER — who knew?) I would like to point out that when you go to Australia, there is no point going for a couple of days. We are talking three weeks without sex. Even for a married couple that’s a dry season.
The only place where we are able to engage in any kind of activity is when we are back at my in-law’s house (a ‘visit’ not a ‘holiday’) and sleeping in my husband’s childhood bedroom. This is decorated in a style best described as ‘early 90’s teenage boy’ — all primary colours, black wood and silver-framed pictures of sports stars. It feels as if I have gone Back to the Future to molest my husband in 1993 and it will take more than a souped-up DeLorean to prevent me from being put on a register.
I have thought about making our own arrangements and staying in a hotel but the affront and ensuing frosty breakfasts this would cause do not bear thinking about. The whole point of the visit is to be together constantly because a visit is not an actual holiday. Visits are the opposite of real holidays for the following reasons:
1. On a visit you must bring presents with you rather than buying presents to take home as you would on holiday. These presents must be only available in England and preferably feature a Union flag or a picture of the Queen. This is very important.
2. You are not in charge of the itinerary. It has been carefully planned well in advance of your arrival and when you are not ‘away’ it largely consists of being taken from one unknown person’s house to another unknown person’s house and being shown off like Tupperware or something new from Ann Summers.
3. On a visit, you can expect your mother-in-law to burst in on you without knocking at 7 AM while you are semi-naked and jetlagged. The family dog will then take a run up and launch itself onto your head like the Shi-Tzu equivalent of Jonathan Edwards. On an actual holiday this would be highly unexpected.
So how do you get around this? You don’t. We have to bookend the visit with an actual holiday for two. This usually involves a weekend-long stopover en route to England somewhere unbelievably dull like Singapore. Singapore is like a giant Westfield with a zoo. You can experience Singapore in London by just wearing all your clothes at once and then travelling on the tube to Westfield and then to the zoo. There is no need to leave your room in Singapore except to get some food.
Or sometimes we just skip the stopover altogether and just head home and high-five our neighbours in the morning.