Material memories of holiday fantasies?

“What would be your fantasy holiday?”

I was recently interviewed by E-R C, a PhD student who, as part of her fascinating research, is examining the connections between holidays and fantasy.

My interlocutor managed to disguise her undoubted horror as I burbled, honestly but perhaps unwisely, that my fantasy holiday would be at least two weeks spent somewhere very warm, Mediterranean probably, with much sunshine, a clear sea, many ancient, overgrown ruins, warm stones, lots of hiking paths snaking amongst rocks and venerable trees, lizards, old well-worn towns, shady cafes, a background of strigilating cicadas and grasshoppers, somewhere comfortable to sip cheap beer (with free wi-fi) and the intimate company of a handful of super-attractive, long-legged, sexually-imaginative and highly-brainy young women companions (this is a fantasy, after all). Our days would be spent exploring, reading, taking photographs, hiking, exposing and caressing smooth, tanned flesh and engaging in passionate intellectual debates. What fun!

My tiny and probably worthless contribution to the world of knowledge apart, the exercise got me thinking about holidays, their material memories (which I’m researching) and fantasy.

Holidays are the source of probably our most familiar material memories. Most vacation destinations are crammed with shops supplying just these – things that we acquire, take home with us and display (at least for a while) to remind us of (hopefully) happy times. Some will have been manufactured or crafted locally, but most will have been mass-produced, often in countries far distant from the place in which we bought them.

To me, the range of artefacts associated with the memories of holidays is huge, and interesting. And perhaps fantasy has a big part to play in what we bring home.

For example, holidays seem to bring out the scurrilous in many of us. We buy nudge-nudge wink-wink postcards featuring overweight and underdressed ladies, or large-busted tiny-bikini-clad women in the jocular company of weedy men, or supposedly-amusing nudity of both genders, with an emphasis on breasts and bottoms. We are also (and here I get very interested, given the subject of my PhD research) persuaded to acquire miniature rudeness, in the shape of exaggeratedly priapic satyrs or tiny obese ladies. If not humorously obscene, and some miniatures depict athletic sexual acts to varying degrees of accuracy, these figurines are on the edge. Holidays it seems are times of double entendre.

The objects themselves often have little connection with the location of the holiday. At least plastic satyrs have a Greek ancestry, but other objects are simply stamped with different locations, and you’ll see the same things in Benidorm and Bondi Beach (I’m guessing). So they are material memories of being there and being amused rather than representations of place. “I hade this rude thought in Xxxxx” rather than “This is a miniature plastic view of Xxxxx.”

Perhaps holidays not only allow us, in theory, to let go of the stresses and pressures of everyday life, but also temporarily to abandon respectability, or good taste, or admit to hidden sexualities, if only in fantasy. It is perhaps telling that the risqué objects that amuse us while on vacation rarely grace our mantelpieces for long, as we revert to our more restrained behaviours once we settle back to “normality.” But the material memories are there nevertheless, even if relegated to a shoe box in the attic, persuading us, and to a lesser extent the world, that beneath our boringly respectable exteriors lie bubbling cauldrons of anarchic sexuality that will released by sunshine and sand.

That in reality we are rarely going to expose the entirety of our pale or blotchy sunburnt-red bodies to the equally pale British sunlight doesn’t seem to concern us. That we similarly refrain from undue exposure even when surrounded by leather-brown naked Germans during holidays abroad doesn’t prevent us from indulging in varying levels of vulgarity, as souvenir shops in continental seaside towns attest. We imagine that we are jolly, bawdy, outrageous, devil-may-care. We kick metaphorical sand in the faces of vacationing wimps, even though we are the wimps. We fantasise that we are the subjects of tongue-in-cheek postcards, even though the nearest we get to a thong bikini is FHM.

We recklessly buy T-shirts bearing bold boasts about our sexual performance or proclivities that we subsequently never have the courage to wear in public. We acquire hilarious (or so they seemed at the time) stickers for our car’s rear window (my favourite, usually displayed by podgy, grey-skinned virgins, is Sex Instructor: First Lesson Free). We sport “kiss-me-quick” hats, never expecting (and perhaps dreading) that anyone will actually act on this invitation.

It may be that we want to remember a fantasy slap-and-tickle-flat-cap-rolled-up-trousered-belly-laughing-fun-and-frolicksome-short-shorts holiday when in truth we are sitting in a could-be-anywhere bar staring glumly at passing beer-gutted men, dumpy women and grizzling children who are glumly plodding the streets of whatever resort we are in, seeking fish and chips and the nearest chain store outlet. In Britain it will be raining. On the Continent it will be too hot. A combination of sunburn, insect bites, hangovers, heat, cold, food-poisoning, demanding offspring, disgruntled companions, sand in everything and tedium means that holiday sexuality is fraught with hazards and perhaps mostly imaginary.

This is just one example. If the small disappointments of reality are the most efficient inspirations of fantasies, then holidays are perhaps a potent source of objects that reflect those fantasies. My thanks to E-R for pointing my thinking in a fertile direction!