Beta male: the joys of family holidays

‘I’d be content if we all lived together for ever in a compound, like the Ewings or the Corleones’

One of the unexpected pleasures of my most recent years as a father has been my children’s unwavering loyalty to the concept of the family holiday. I’m not one of those weird parents who want (or, I suspect, pretend to want, for comic effect) to ditch their kids as soon as they reach mid-adolescence. I’d be quite content if we all travelled together for the rest of time.

And, indeed, lived together, likewise. Even after Sam and Rachel are themselves partnered up, I’d favour a kind of family compound, like the Ewings organised at Southfork, or the Corleone set-up on Long Island and then, after the historic move to Las Vegas, Nevada. Because, hey, those domestic arrangements worked out really well, didn’t they?

If I’d been asked a year or two ago, I suppose I would have worried that by Easter 2016, at 19 and 17, Sam and Rachel’s commitment to sharing holidays with their mum and dad might be wearing thin. But no! Booking our latest groovy little city break a while back, there was no suggestion they wouldn’t accompany us. Maybe Nicola and I – Nicola at any rate – have done something right over these past near enough two decades of child-rearing after all.

Personally, I think the little rascals just want an extended opportunity to rip the p*** out of their dear old dad.

In a rare outbreak of democracy, the four of us each nominated our three preferred venues. I plumped for Copenhagen, Budapest or Warsaw. Sam fancied Amsterdam, Venice or Istanbul. Rachel favoured Barcelona, Berlin or Naples, by which she meant Pompeii – she’s been doing Vesuvius in geography. Nicola said yes, she too was keen on Pompeii – but then again, all in good time, because the place currently intriguing her was the pride of Portugal, the gateway to the Atlantic, the jewel of Iberia, the fine city of Lisbon.

And so, a fortnight ago, the preceding democratic experiment having lasted all of five minutes, the four of us embarked for Lisbon. I’m not complaining – talk about first-world problems: discussing (or pretending to discuss) the merits of your next getaway destination pretty much defines the genre, does it not?

In another thrilling development, Nicola came up with a scheme to heal the running sore of aeroplane seat allocation. We habitually book a whole row of three plus the adjacent one across the aisle. And then, because everyone’s preference is for first window, next aisle, lastly middle, we squabble about who sits where.

What would be fair, Nicola decided, is if she had the window and Rachel had the middle flying out, and vice versa flying back, while Sammy and I each got an aisle seat in both directions. “Son,” I whispered as the engines revved up at Stansted, “we’ve been shafted here – but I can’t work out how.”

I’d never been to Lisbon. And thus – wheels down, the infuriating Ryanair arrival jingle piping up – was my 24th European capital ticked off the list. And believe me, there is a list. Best? London, of course. Worst? Zagreb, by a mile. On account of there being rather a lot of shooting, shelling and general mayhem and unpleasantness going on in Croatia at the time of my visit. The result of that being one super-scaredy 29-year-old Bob.

It’s a little early to decide where Lisbon ranks in the list – lower than Rome, Moscow and Prague, higher than Bern, Brussels and Athens. Solidly mid-table, perhaps. Maybe bumped up a bit from that by the trams, funiculars and seafood. Not forgetting the aqueduct, of course. You can’t beat an aqueduct, can you?

Although I had not previously troubled its capital with my presence, I had visited Portugal once before: the Algarve, 1995, assigned to report on Jimmy Tarbuck’s charity golf tournament at Vale do Lobo near Faro. Forty-eight wealthy punters were teaming up with 16 golf-loving celebrities (Tarby, Eddie Large, Kenny Lynch, Robert Powell, Tim Brooke-Taylor, other household names of a similarly titanic cultural status) to enjoy a fiesta of zany four-ball fun in the sun.

I fell victim early doors to the most protracted and severe bout of diarrhoea I’ve ever experienced. On the rare and brief occasions I was able to socialise, waddling wan-faced from whatever lavatory I happened to have commandeered, I failed spectacularly to fit in. Squeezing your buttocks shut while making polite golf-based small talk with clapped-out Seventies comedians and bombastic, borderline fascist Brummie businessmen did not lie close to even the outlying frontiers of my comfort zone.

Nowadays, older and wiser, I’d handle it better. Back then, Tarby’s tournament felt like the longest four days of my life. And was, quite probably, the reason it took me fully 21 years to return to such an undeniably charming nation.

Further dispatches from the fabled banks of the Tagus next week.

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