A FEW of us were talking over coffee the other day about holidays - the best holidays we’d ever had and what we’d recommend to someone else.
Chatting about holidays, which unfortunately is de rigueur at this time of the year for the chattering classes, is a recurring nightmare for me, because I’ve never been anyplace really exciting, apart maybe from Lisdoonvarna.
I couldn’t even remotely be described as widely travelled; I’ve never had a Columbus complex and I’m still not even convinced that the earth is round. I don’t even like much sunshine; I hate flying and I’d be terrified of causing a landslide on a ski slope or having to order a coffee in sign language because of being linguistically challenged.
There were of course a few junkets I enjoyed in my working life, courtesy of various airlines and tourism promoters around the world, as well as one trip to the Limerick association in Chicago, where I nearly drowned in nostalgia. But junkets don’t count when holidays are under discussion at the coffee table. Junkets are now the great unmentionable. I’d hate anyone to know that I was once a junketing beneficiary.
So, in deference to political correctness, I couldn’t brag about the two glorious nights I once spent in a magnificent chateau near Chantilly, thanks to Ryanair. So where was I anyway, when all my friends were embarking on voyages of discovery from the Costa del Sol initially to the shores of Thailand and the heights of Nepal eventually? Where was I when I should have been broadening my mind with travel and preparing for holiday discussions in old age around the coffee table at Pontevecchio in Killaloe or at the nearby ‘Bless’ café, where the proprietor, Magdalena, who hails from Malaysia, has just returned from a holiday in Northern India?
I’m afraid I found myself, once again, out of my depth at the table, and almost having to conjure up an interesting break out of thin air in order to compete with exotic trips in the Amazon valley, a tour of Cambodia and a dip in a geyser in Iceland.
I say ‘once again’ because the discussion reminded me of the first day back at school one September when I was ten years old and we were asked to write an essay on ‘My Summer Holiday’. That posed a major predicament for me. I thought you had to go away somewhere in order to be able to say that you had been on holiday - and maybe you’d even have had to send a picture postcard or two to prove it. I hadn’t been anyplace all summer, apart from the meadow and the bog. So for the first time in my life I had to be creative and invent an aunt who lived in a mansion with a swimming pool near Dublin, where I had spent three blissful weeks in July. I’m afraid I got carried away with the imagined rapture.
Unfortunately, we lived in a small village then where everyone not only knew everyone else, but knew everyone belonging to them as well. It was also a world of stark reality where the imagination was stifled in case you became too ‘airy’ or got stuck in a dream world forever. Naturally, the teacher expressed doubts about the existence of an aunt he had never heard of before. He asked if she was a figment of my imagination and I blushingly agreed that she was. For weeks afterwards the other kids were asking me “how’s your Auntie Figment?” and “when are you going to visit your auntie Figment again?” It was only a matter of time before she had evolved into ‘Auntie Figroll’. Excruciating stuff for a ten year old to have to endure!
In afterlife, junkets were anything but figments of the imagination and, like it or not, they did help to broaden the minds of generations of politicians and journalists, who, like myself, would otherwise have been more insular and even less travelled than we were.
I can’t for the life of me understand why the word, whatever about the practice, is no longer acceptable in polite society. Is there even any such thing as a junket anymore? Do County Councillors travel anymore to study town planning in Buenos Aires or do Limerick’s elected representatives ever get to visit their twin region in Hohenlohe in Southern Germany, where the wine is absolutely divine? Do they travel incognito or has the media come to the conclusion that there are worse ways of misusing tax payers’ money.
Personally, I think it was begrudgery, rather than a yearning for high standards and accountability to the tax payer, that did for the junkets. The media went all righteous over political junketeering, but honestly, I never met a journalist yet who turned down an offer of a junket on principle, whether it was paid for by the tax payer or by private business. I was hypocrite enough myself to have once joined Limerick County councillors on a memorable all expenses paid trip to Hohenlohe, just weeks after writing an anti-junketeering article.
Anyhow, there’s no way I can recall one of my junkets for the coffee morning holiday discussion now. Apart from the political incorrectness, those trips were unreal, because we were treated like royalty and never had to worry about a thing. The reality may be very different. Everything was laid on for us, although I once had to be rescued by a colleague from the infamous ‘Crazy Horse’ in Paris during an Air France trip, when my sensibilities became upset after discovering where I was.
I’m going to have to remain silent in the holiday conversation, or admit that the only exotic travel I ever did was in my imagination – although, funny enough, it never failed to satisfy me.