They say that timing in life – as in comedy, golf and many other spheres of human endeavour – is everything. And when it comes to planning family holidays, it’s even more important.
For as long as I can remember, my holiday timing has been off. I once visited the Minoan ruins in Crete during the first – and only ever – one-day strike of guides and interpreters. A day earlier or a day later, and I would have been fine.
Often, in the pre-Euro days, I would undertake a trip to the US or UK just at the very moment when the Irish punt had nosedived agains the dollar or the pound. Bad timing is not just inconvenient; it can cost money too.
This year, when my wife annouced that she was taking a two-month sabbatical from work and wanted us to travel around Europe, I had a certain unease about her timing.
I had a sneaking feeling that we would be walking out on the best Irish summer in a generation. What I didn’t know was that we would be walking into the worst one mainland Europe has had in living memory.
It began well enough. The weather in Freiburg in southern Germany was good, like a fine Irish summer’s day. We spent a pleasant weekend wondering what on earth people were saying to us.
But as we went west, towards Paris, the clouds gathered. It was overcast and cold, like a standard Irish summer’s day. The French could not understand it. “Ce n’est pas normal,” they said apologetically.
Meanwhile, people at home were rubbing it in. “I hear there’s flooding in Germany,” one said. “The weather here is glorious,” said another. “We’re just having people over for a barbeque.”
On the way to Cahors, there is a hail storm that flattens crops, batters the vines and leaves small dents in the bodywork of cars. “Je n’ai jamais vu ça,” says a vigneron we meet. Eighty thousand hectares of vines ruined, not a leaf left on a stem.
We also meet a group of vintage car enthusiasts from England. All of their cars have been damaged by the storm. “They were the size of golf balls,” one said. Some are still gathered, melting slowly, on the roof of our hotel.
In Cassis, the man in front of me in the queue at the tourist office is complaining. “The sea,” he says in a Scandinavian accent, “it is too cold. Where can we go for warm sea?”
The lady at the desk shrugs. Hotels, car rental, maps, cultural events, these she can help with. But the temperature of the sea is not under the control of the local administration.
France has never had a summer like this. The sun has deserted them. Grey cloud hangs low in the sky. And the man at the tourist office is right: the sea is freezing, like the Forty Foot on Christmas Day.
On Facebook, friends are posting photos of the sun over Dublin Bay and saying things like: “When the weather’s like this, is there anywhere better in the world?”
I go online one day – a grey day in the middle of France where the greyness seems to extend for eternity in every direction – to discover that Met Éireann has issued a sunburn warning.
I notice that we are saying things that we used to say only on holidays in the west of Ireland: “I think it’s clearing” or “It’s lifting” or “The sun is doing it’s best to break through”.
Our babysitter texts to say she’s off on holidays and will see us in August sometime. “BTW, you’re missing a GR8 summer here!” she adds.
We decide to head south. In the train station, there is a long queue. When I am finally called to the counter, I ask why.
“There is a strike at Air France,” the lady says. “Everyone wants to get a train.”
I begin to think our timing has improved, at least on the transport front. We have dodged a bullet here: we were thinking of flying south, but decided that the train would be better.
The lady from the SNCF prints out our tickets and hands them to me. She sighs a world-weary sigh. “But there is a rail strike tomorrow,” she says.