If ever I fancy a career change, all I have to do is return home. Within seconds of crossing the threshold of my parents’ house, I’m instantly recast in the role of unpaid IT professional.
It doesn’t matter if their laptops, phones, TV and cheapo, obscure tablets are completely alien to me — I’ll get asked if I know what’s wrong with them. And it’s either testament to my skills or their technical ineptitude that the problem can often be fixed in about 30 seconds, accompanied by a certain-to-be-unheeded warning not to download that dodgy stuff again.
But playing slave-labour technician is nothing compared to playing travel agent.
This is something I often think I’d be quite good at. I’ve developed a weirdly strong knowledge of which airlines fly where, I regularly put together absurdly complex itineraries and know the odd trick for keeping costs down. This self-belief in my abilities as a travel agent, however, comes massively unstuck whenever anyone asks me for advice. Road trips across Australia and the US? Sure, I’m your man. City breaks all over Europe with the exception of Barcelona, which I’ve not been to since I was about five years old? I can help.
But no one ever asks about these things. It’s always cruises, or Mediterranean villa holidays, or all-inclusives with good kids’ clubs. Or Barcelona. And, frankly, they may as well ask the scary, shouting man on the number 52 bus instead — the result will be equally useless.
If I ever need a reminder that I’m only good at planning trips that suit my own needs and tastes, however, a visit to my parents’ is all that’s required. Because once I’ve fixed all web browsers, e-readers and wi-fi routers, any foray into the topic of possible holiday destinations is instantly regretted.
We all have our own little foibles when it comes to what we want from a holiday. I get inexplicably furious if there’s not an accessible plug socket by the hotel bed, for example — and more reasonably so if I end up with a string of 5am alarm calls.
But while I have a pocketful of such quirks, my mum has a giant Santa-sized sack of them. She wants to fly from East Midlands, but not with Ryanair. She wants the hotel to be on the beach, not across the road from the beach, even though she won’t go in the sea. She wants to stay in the same place for the entire holiday, avoid connecting flights, and have transfer times of no more the 45 minutes at the other end.
She won’t countenance staying anywhere that doesn’t serve breakfast on site, she won’t eat anything with cream in it, she won’t let my dad hire a car in a country that drives on the right and there’s absolutely no way you’re getting her on a boat.
Essentially, she’s happy going back to the same place in Tenerife every year, staring at sea spray hitting rocks and getting ridiculously competitive during the in-hotel rifle shooting and shuffleboard competitions. The only compelling reason for her to leave said hotel is for some nebulously-defined ‘people watching’.
My dad, however, has no interest in any of this, hates going back to the same place every time and has a lack of interest in other people and cultures that borders on sociopathic. He’s climbed the highest mountains on four continents and will bore people with slide shows of Victoria Falls or the Himalayas at the slightest provocation. He’d quite happily spend all day walking, then all evening eating three times his own bodyweight at a giant buffet.
Trying to find a destination that suits them both is the stuff of nightmares, especially given that every conceivable candidate has been exhausted in the past. Every suggestion will be sunk by some implausibly trivial objection.
It’s a predictable, draining and chastening experience, but one that makes me think any good travel agent deserves a knighthood. And possibly a sainthood too. My parents are unlikely to be unique here. If I have to put up with that sort of unsolvable travel Rubik’s Cube with one lovingly bickering couple, imagine what it’s like having to deal with hundreds of them on a full-time basis?
Eventually, I simply give up. They’ll end up choosing to go somewhere neither of them likes very much, and I’ll skulk off to the spare bedroom, which is still covered in posters of bands I liked when I was 14. The career change may be off the cards, but at least there’s a good, solid plug socket by the bed.
Published in the Jul/Aug 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)