Concerned that my life may lack purpose and fulfilling activity, friends quite often get in touch with questions they have generously thought up to make me feel useful and wanted. ‘Which Greek island would you recommend for our next holiday?’ Not Kos, just at the moment, probably, though that may seem nimbyish, letting-the-terrorists-win advice. We should not give in to scaremongers but with the best will in the world a holiday in a place swarming with people like Orla Guerin, Lyse Doucet and tyro freelancers desperate for a slot on From Our Own Correspondent would be no kind of relaxation.
Or, more often, ‘can you come up with a nice little hotel half way to the Pyrenees/Val d’Isère/Provence? You know the sort of place we like.’ I dig around guide books, websites and old notebooks for an hour or two, which is after all more fun and easier than work, and come up with a few suggestions.
‘Thanks, but the vegetarian menu looks a bit dull. Where would we walk the dogs? Is the car park free? We like the look of L’Abbaye. Do you know it?’
I don’t, but it looks quite dreary to me, Tripadvisor is not encouraging and despite the name it’s not an old abbey but ‘une ancienne gare routière’ (bus station). I come up with a few alternatives.
‘Thanks for all your help. We’ve decided to go with the Abbaye place. See you soon. Lunch?’
This is a great relief. People are much more likely to be happy with places they have found for themselves. And if they aren’t, they can’t blame me. The few who take advice do so in a more critical spirit, looking for faults to find and report. This is human nature, and I am no different.
Then there’s what I call the Vieux Fox syndrome, named after a friend (ex-friend that is) who called to vent his spleen having made a detour of ‘at least an hour’ to stay in the Auberge du Vieux Fox which my book recommended in glowing terms only to find that the place had closed. “Why didn’t you ring up? The book gives the phone number and it was published five years ago,” I protested. It made no difference.
Luckily this kind of mistake is less frequent in the internet age, and less typical than what I now call the Marché Aux Vins syndrome.
A friend rang from Switzerland. ‘I see you’ve put a page in your book about sightseeing and wine tasting in Beaune. We thought we might do it on the way home.’ The recommended places being the Hôtel-Dieu (sightseeing), and the Marché Aux Vins (wine tasting/buying).
Warm feelings of validation coursed through me, and I looked forward to hearing how my friends got on, especially as it’s ages since I visited the places myself.
‘How was Beaune?’ I asked, when we next spoke. ‘Terrific!’ my friend said brightly. ‘We didn’t go to your place but did the wine tasting next door. They liked us so much they opened a special cellar ….’ etc etc
I took comfort in the fact that had it not been for me, my friends might not have stopped at Beaune at all, and had such a successful visit. One of the great consolations of being asked for holiday advice is that people almost never take it. And it makes me feel wanted.