Ten years ago this September, we went on holiday to the south of France. We were staying in a remote barn about an hour from Carcassonne. We got lost on the way, famously going the ‘wrong’ way — or at least the long way — round a mountain, on a road so narrow we couldn’t turn back. When we finally reached the road the property was closest to, we bumped up a steep and twisting 2km unpaved track in our rental car. Parked outside the stone barn there was an ancient yellow Citroën 2CV which looked like it might never make it back down the track.
The barn was owned by an actor who lived in Barcelona & she’d furnished its open-plan room simply but perfectly: a low double bed, two desks each beneath its own window, a small sofa and armchair in the middle of the room, & a kitchen in one corner. There was a woodburner in the centre of the room & the September evenings in the mountains were cool enough for us to use it.
We arrived with a suitcase full of books & a small secret: I was eight weeks pregnant. That week — before anyone but us knew a thing — was perfect. We walked, read, rested. I do remember a rare argument — we got up so late that we missed getting to the boulangerie before the bread had sold out. If you ever find yourself with someone in the early weeks of pregnancy, do not miss buying the bread: ten years later I still remember my complete devastation.
Anyway, I tell you all this, because that holiday is the last holiday I remember reading all the books. I read Lolita. I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower for the first time. I read Muriel Spark and Javier Marías. I re-read The Children’s Bach by Helen Garner. And then, the next spring, T was born and my reading days were no longer quite my own.
The following September, we took our first trip to France with T, who was then nearly four months old. I can remember telling my mum afterwards that going on holiday with a baby was pretty much just like being at home with a baby. And, while I haven’t thought that continuously since then, I do think that I had a pretty good point. It’s like wherever you go, you take yourself with you, except multiplied: wherever you go, you take all those you’re responsible for with you. Which for many years has meant toting a lot of books on holiday & bringing many of them back unread.
This summer though was notable in two ways. To start with, it was the first time, since that September a decade ago, that we’ve gone on holiday without a pushchair. Even typing that sounds pretty momentous! We had to carry our own water & shopping & everything — its luggage-carrying potential being, for a while after toddlerdom strikes, the primary point of a buggy — but we could go into cafés & shops & transport situations without any of the hesitation or awkwardness that a pushchair entails.
And, this summer, with children now 3, 6 & 9, I read all the books! And here they are. Though, there were more. There was Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot, which I read all the way through because I kept thinking it must get better or I might be missing something, but then it didn’t or I continued to miss the something and I felt so bad about lugging it all the way to the south of France that I certainly didn’t want to lug it back. I left it in the campsite shop between an Asterix & a couple of historical romances. There was Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace for my short story a day. There was Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which gave me helpful pointers on both the DFW and the Zora Neale Hurston.
Some of the books were good, some were wonderful, but beyond the fact of each individual experience, there was the intense, and almost forgotten, satisfaction of reading all the books.