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A holiday …..before the madness….

2010 July 29
by Paul Vallely

We ran out of space on the family camera less than halfway through our holiday in France. My first response was to regret not having brought my laptop. I could then have downloaded all the pix to the computer and started again with an empty camera.

There was lots to photograph. We had gone for three days to Puy du Fou, a history theme park set in a large wooded site in the Vendée in which you repeatedly come across clearings containing a Roman amphitheatre, Viking settlement, medieval castle, 18th century village or Belle Époque provincial town. In each setting costumed Roman gladiators fought, Vikings rampaged, knights jousted, squires performed breathtaking feats of equestrian skill and falconers spectacularly flew hawks and eagles.

It was distinctively French. Though the spectacles were slick in their organisation and timing (the minstrel magicians were down to last 14 minutes and did so precisely) there was a bumbling charm about the content. Shot through with a Gallic romanticism and over-poetic rhapsody it managed at one point to muddle the Three Musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a character called Bouton d’Or into a single 36 minute extravaganza complete with gypsy girls, Cossack dancers and horses dancing through fountains.  A bombarding of the senses was shamelessly preferred to historical accuracy.

There were other little irritations of being computerless, like being unable to send a chambre d’hote an email about my wife’s lost specs. And not being able to Google stuff every time my 10 year old asked me a question to which I didn’t know the answer, which seems to happen with increasing frequency. But as our fortnight’s holiday progressed the decision to have left the laptop at home created an increasing sense of liberation from a daily existence characterised by stimulation overload.

The computer is a chief culprit in that. The internet is a beckoning cornucopia of distraction and diversion – disguised by a specious connectedness which is ultimately purposeless; unlike real surfing where the waves eventually hit a beach. Emails entice us to elevate the immediate over the important. Of course the telephone has long done that. But computers add an additional addictive quality to that false urgency.

Holiday should be an antidote to that. So when we got to our cottage we played games in the garden and on boards when it was too hot outside.  We ate in a dining room with no television set. We “lost” the charger for the Nintendo DS. We chose DVDs that we all wanted to watch together. We even turned the solipsistic business of books into a communal activity by reading aloud. It was a reminder that in recreation we can recreate not just ourselves but our relationships.

When I got home there were 232 emails waiting, not including my work ones. I have a friend who has instituted a new regime; send him an email and you get an automatic reply informing you that he only looks at emails twice a day, at 10 am and 4pm, so you don’t expect an instant response. That would be realistic for a working journalist but I have now decided that I don’t need to open emails from people I don’t know unless they look interesting. Volume long since put paid to the old courtesy that everyone must get a reply.

A personnel manager once told me that her rule of thumb was that employees were allowed one day of day-dreaming, back in the office, for every week that they had been away on hol. That means that by the time you read this I may well have already forgotten the lessons of the past fortnight. So I just thought I would share them with you before the madness reasserts itself.

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