What I wish I had known before my holidays

By Miles Kington

13 August 2003

I have just returned from a holiday in the south-west of France, where our family was sharing a large rented house with three other families, only one of which we really knew beforehand. Based on this experience, I have drawn up an ad hoc series of rules about sharing a house in France with other families whom you don't know terribly well beforehand. (Luckily, the other families will never read this, as I gave them the impression that I was an expert on weapons of mass destruction in real life, taking time off from the grind.)

So, if you are sharing a house in France with other families, here are some guidelines:

The glass of wine standing on the communal table that you think is yours, is not yours.

One ping-pong ball is not enough.

Breakfast must be planned like a military manoeuvre. If it isn't, more than one person will go to the boulangerie in the early morning and you will end up with breakfast being bought several times over.

There is not much you can do with left-over croissants.

Cheap French wine is wonderfully cheap, but it is not wonderful.

French bread is designed to become inedible after 12 hours, and cannot be reused for anything.

Two ping-pong balls are never enough.

The person who arrives with a bottle of gin for the house will be in credit for at least a week.

From the outset, allot yourself a simple household chore and make it your own. It will get you out of many other chores.

Three days after purchase, get rid of all salami and garlic sausage, ham and rillettes, peaches and nectarines, and start again. Oh, and fish and meat. And everything else.

All biscuits left outside on the ground in the garden will attract large ant colonies. This may annoy the owner of the biscuits.

Do not come to blows over whether the dish of butter should be left in the fridge (and go as hard as a rock) or left out (and melt). Have two sets of butter on the go, one for each taste.

Three ping-pong balls will not be sufficient.

Never have a VCR in your bedroom. It attracts other people's children.

It appears that children aged between 12 and 18 do not like to be called "the children". You will have to think of a new name for them. That is easy. A name that offends no one. That is difficult. We settled for "offspring".

Buy the local paper to improve your French, if you like, but do not expect to get any news from it. It will only contain items about car crashes, air pollution, traffic jams and water shortages. All the exciting local festivals covered in the paper have already happened.

From time to time, the washing line will have to be cleared and sorted. The men should not be seen sorting out female underwear (even if it just involves holding up knickers and saying loudly: "Whose on earth are these?"). Leave that to the womenfolk. There is nothing suspicious about women sorting out male underwear.

If, through the luck of the draw, you get a bedroom of which others might justifiably be jealous, never cease to moan about the heat at night, the noise of traffic, the smell of cooking, the invasion by insects, etc, etc.

Any game played enthusiastically during the first three days of the holidays will never be played again.

One member of the group will be reading a novel by someone you have always meant to read, but never have, probably Sebastian Faulks. During the holidays, everyone will read it except you. By the end, the group will be a book club from which you are excluded. Oh well, could be worse.

You will never get a better chance to test the flavour of other people's toothpastes.

All toothpastes taste the same.

Some people on holiday escape from British news with relief. Others will go hunting for British newspapers wherever possible. Both sides should be treated with respect, even the news nerds.

All empty plastic bottles bearing the name of important French mineral waters should be refilled from the tap and put in the fridge.

A man with his own corkscrew is a prince in his own right.

All the canoeing brochures and chateau leaflets and town plans and guides that are painstakingly collected throughout your stay will turn out, on the last day, to be duplicated in the drawer in the dining-table that nobody ever looked in when you arrived.

2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd