When holidays were all about Pschitt and giggles

I am starting to realise the disadvantages of my not writing in a stream of consciousness and hitting send. While out for a leisurely walk now the weather has improved, I realised that I had been bemoaning the “currently” cold weather in my first draft of this post. Bother. And apparently a news story breaks here in Austria that will threaten the long summer breaks of our parliamentarians. Anyhow…

It’s May, a month of double pay for people who receive 13th and 14th salaries, an Austrian peculiarity. Half a century back, Austrians had three weeks of annual leave entitlement, while now they have five or six weeks. Of course, very few have bosses who allow them to take off more than three weeks in one go, and news coverage always tends at the start of the year to contain articles about how to make the most of how public holidays fall to maximise efficiency of taking leave. When I first started writing this post, I contemplated mentioned how the bureaucrats will be downing tools before long. However, they might not be now, as there may be an election campaign in the offing. Not that that affects our plans.

With my wife teaching, we are tied to school holidays for going away for extended periods but that doesn’t worry us. We make up for this by visiting a lot of friends scattered around Eastern and Southern Austria, looking up friends and family often for a day or two throughout the school year. We are also of an age where we and our friends have guest rooms and people come to stay.

The notion of Urlaubsgeld seems to have become a bit of anachronism, as anyone with a family is unlikely to leave it until May to secure their holiday, unless they want to scrabble to secure a Restplatz in the holiday furthest from the beach. Villas, gîtes and the like as well as children’s summer camps have been (hopefully) packed out for months too. I say hopefully as one friend for many years used to organise holiday camps for children, and found it to be a slightly unpredictable famine/feast trade.

Granted in the age of Airbnb for some the cheaper and apparently alluring idea is to stay in a host’s home rather than a characterless hotel room, saving a healthy amount in the process, but seeing friends as part of a holiday is one of the attractions for me. Back when I travelled all around Austria in one job, I particularly enjoyed catching up with people I got to know through work as we puttered around more remote parts of Austria. It was how I came to appreciate Austria’s nooks and crannies, or should that be valleys, lakes and mountains. Small talk with unknown Stammgäste of bars and Gasthäuser wasn’t my thing – at least not until the boot was on the other foot and I’d go out with friends and we’d invite the lonely beer swigger to join us. Not all did, but some did and friendships emerged.

Compared with some of the parts of the UK I lived in, I take Austria for granted and sometimes I forget that we are also incredibly spoilt. There is so much to see and do only a short drive or train ride away from home. Although of course it was not ever thus in my past life in mainly middle and northern England. Some of the postcards sent from past holidays abroad were also grim reading. I remember a postcard to the parents from a camping holiday in Britanny with my brother and two chums where we had six days of rain. The waterproofing in the tents were at best poor, the facilities at the campsite close to non-existent and we were all soggy bedraggled messes. Did it put us off? Of course it didn’t. Another trip we had a drafty caravan with an unreliable chemical toilet.

We lived off baguettes and cheese for most of the week, washed down with a bottle of Pschitt (a French lemonade that sold itself to us by virtue of its name) before splurging on two dinners of steak frites and a bottle of red wine. I am not quite sure in hindsight why there was a need to inform parents about plumbing and rations at most opportunities on the postcards we sent, but they seemed to be a staple piece of information.

Maybe it was due to the fact that when I was at school, in particular in the years we were moving between one base and another, school holidays were often spent getting shipshape after a move and settling in. With a bit of luck we would make our first friends who would go off on bikes with us and show you the impromptu playgrounds and locations for adventures. We would go to the woods and fight imaginary battles loosely based on history and knowledge gleaned in books. Mum, if she knew that we couldn’t help with getting the house shipshape would be a bit like the seaside boarding house proprietor who’d sling us out in the morning after breakfast with a small lunchbox (two sandwiches and a piece of fruit and if there was a piece of cake, it was a definite bonus). We would go off on our bikes with at most enough money for a phonecall home and an ice lolly and be expected to be back in time for tea/supper.

When I think about holidays growing up, we frequently used to go and see Mum’s family in Lincolnshire, for a buckets and spades holiday, or head off to North Wales for a week, as mum had a friend whose sister had a B&B somewhere near Rhyl and we would head off there for a week away, and we thought we were fortunate. The first time we went abroad, by ferry from I think Harwich to Hook of Holland was mind blowing, even though it was a glorified camping trip, albeit overseas. My brother and I usually kept ourselves amused with a deck of cards (on many trips, we’d buy the cards on the ferry). Simple times. And goodness knows what we would have done if we had lost our passports, money or whatnot.

But, as I daydreamed about travel of yesteryear, this week while on the 35a bus, I heard two bratish teenagers (presumably schooled at the international school in Salmannsdorf) recount for all to hear about how they would fly to the US, have three weeks there, flying all over the place, head on for two weeks in Tuscany with an (I quote) “amazing villa, with a pool, and room for sixteen to twenty”. Pity and envy (silently) from my quarters. It’s all far too spoilt and superficial, and doubtless none of it carbon-offset. The brats were furiously boasting while catching up with their phones (I presume cold turkey in classrooms is classed as extreme hardship in this day and age) about what they would do, and at that point I wondered if they might be prone to exaggerating and one-upmanship, trying to do each other.

Casting my mind back to when my brother and I had grown up and were allowed to go off on our own, for a few years our holidays would take on the form of road trips, and often three or four of us would cram ourselves in to a car (invariably a small hatchback) and take a car ferry and explore somewhere on the continent. We had all kinds of fun, usually having roughly planned from (on occasion hideously out-of-date) books from the local library. Try explaining to a teenage “phombie” about the modalities of planning involved. We booked rooms in youth hostels and b&b’s by letter months in advance for fixed dates. You would hope that the postman would bring confirmations or brochures from the tourist office to help your planning. Otherwise though it was joining up the dots, working out from the weather forecast (and looking out of the window not any App) what the programme for the day was, and we did it under our own steam.

Holidays were adventures back then. There was none of the travelling armed with credit cards and debit cards, safe in the knowledge that you could get money from an ATM from anywhere. Trips abroad required us to be savvy. We used to have to save up for a holiday. Pickle jars would be filled with change that would be bagged up and changed into spending money. Currency and travellers cheques were purchased in advance from a High Street bank and we used to have to know how much we would need and stuck to a budget. Usually there was a notebook that helped us to budget, and there would be times of miscalculation, which meant a cheese, baguette and plonk meal at the campsite, rather than sitting down for a set meal. We’d take our own lemonade to drink en route, eschewing the convenience of the motorway service station other than to stretch legs, empty bladders and dig out the thermos for a cup of instant coffee or tea. A car was never christened until you’d spilt some milk in it from such a coffee break.

Fast forward back to 2019 again. As if entitlement wasn’t enough for my fellow bus passengers, a story in the Kurier at least perked me up on another grey day. The mercury had been struggling into double figures and rain disrupting my walking. There were only so many sorry wet trudges that I could take, before the allure of pottering around at home got more appealing. Mollycoddling in what my fellow blogger Robert Barratt calls “the number one city” in reference to Vienna’s perpetual place at the top of the tree of comfortable living this week reached an all-time high.

In a serious news story, the US Ambassador announced that distressed Americans can now throw themselves on the mercy of any branch of the Golden Arches, not for sustenance, but now for consular services. This is a story from Kurier, not the satirical Tagespresse.

Am I alone in wanting a returning to the more frugal, less opulent holiday. Holiday time was a period my brother and I used to use to reconnect with one another. There were card games played, scores kept and fraternal pride at stake. We didn’t need a Tuscan villa with a pool, or a place in Ibiza with all the vodka and energy drink in the world, or shadowy company. For our great escapes we needed friends, cards, a battered hatchback, a leaky tent and a sense of adventure, and a few bottles of Pschitt. The giggles followed.