28 Dec Fine tuning family time
The structure of my trips to my mum’s house in Gloucestershire, England, is always pretty much the same.
My mum, grandma, and brother fill me in on the latest gossip about the neighbours, most of whom I’ve still never actually met. We do a crossword, yelling the clues at Granny, who knows every single answer but whose hearing is not what it once was. We get a Chinese takeaway; my annual fill of Peking duck and crispy shredded chili beef. My mum and I put our woolly hats on for an early morning dog walk up Bredon Hill. I eat a lot of taramasalata and cocktail sausages. I go to Cheltenham with a friend to look around Topshop and grab a coffee in Caffè Nero, or maybe have a pub lunch. I convince another friend to drive to the house one afternoon for catch-ups over a cup of tea. And, to be honest, I also spend a lot of time sitting in my bedroom feeling the effects of cabin fever.
Although this is my family’s home, and it’s perfectly nice, it just doesn’t feel much like mine (I actually wrote a post about that 2 years ago). Last year’s visit was particularly tough, to tell you the truth. It’s not like anything bad happened, but enough had changed in the space of 12 months that I felt like I belonged even less than usual, and like my being around was just causing hassle for everyone (important to mention that this place is totally cut off from the world, with not even a village shop or a bus to get out, so going there is like travelling back in time, to the years of, “Muuuum! Can you drive me into town?”).
Don’t get me wrong, Gloucestershire is by no means a bad place to visit, and it’s not that I hate my family, but I’m just used to a very different and very independent way of life, and it’s not easy to adjust to the polar opposite, even if you’re only staying for a few days.
In all honesty, I did think about skipping this year’s Christmas trip altogether, as the idea of it was already making me feel stressed from about September time. After talking it through a few times with the infinitely patient S, I did decide to have another crack at the Cotswolds family Christmas, but if I wanted this year to be less anxiety-inducing than the last couple, we came to the conclusion that I was going to have to come at the trip with an entirely new approach this time.
And so, I resolved to treat this visit not as “the usual, again”, but to look at it as if it were any other short break away. I wanted to spend time with my family, but I was also going to prioritise visiting some new places, finding some fun new watering holes, and carving out some time for myself, away from the confines of those wattle and daub walls.
Obviously, Christmas week is not the ideal period in which to discover new places – not only is it bitterly cold (and usually drizzling in the UK, too), but 90% of cafés, shops, and all the rest of it are – quite understandably – closed until after New Year. But I’m a stubborn creature at times, and was determined that not even Christmas could come between me and my fake mini-break.
It certainly still needs to be perfected, but my strategy did seem to work quite well for this 5-day stay.
I went on the early morning dog walks, just like last year, but this time not because I felt obliged to but because I really wanted to make the most of some fresh air and some time outside with my mum, and it’s nice to get up and go for a walk when you’re on “holiday”, isn’t it?.
I made plans with three friends who live (sort of) nearby – the same ones I always see over Christmas – but this time I tried a new eatery with each of them, rather than returning to the same places we usually go, or having them over to the house. I splurged the most money I’ve ever spent on food at a very fancy restaurant with my schoolfriend (no regrets at all, though – our beef Wellington was insanely delicious) and found two great new spots for brunch that I’d never come across before, mainly because I’d never bothered to look.
Christmas Day was still fairly demanding, but it could’ve been worse. I decided to take a deep breath and brave the neighbours’ pre-lunchtime gathering, which I usually avoid like the plague, but ended up spending a couple of hours sipping mulled wine with my brother and his friends, and actually surprising myself with how OK I found it all. An admittedly long afternoon of being cooped up in the house followed, but I don’t think my family is the only one to suffer a bit from that.
The following day I was determined to have my quiet time, to get back to some kind of state of zen. After a browse of the Boxing Day sales in Cheltenham town centre (a kind of yearly pilgrimage in my family), I found a cosy corner to sit in on my own, with my iPad and a large slice of cake, instead of coming back to the house with my mum and brother, which made all the difference.
For my last day in England, I coerced Mum into leaving the dog at home and spending a morning exploring a couple of nearby Cotswold villages with me. I didn’t want to do much, just to go for a little wander and see what all the fuss is about, really. After all, I’ve never really done the “tourist thing” around there, and it was a nice excuse to do something together which didn’t involve watching University Challenge on TV. And for the record, the Cotswolds is extremely beautiful, even under a layer of ice.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to head back to my little house in Turin, but this time there’s certainly less of a sigh of relief than last year. Gloucestershire may never feel totally like “home”, but with a bit of fine-tuning to my new game plan, I think my family’s little place in the country might become somewhere I look forward to going back to.