Mem Fox … “whatever disaster happens with flights or things going pear-shaped, that’s part of the holiday.” Photo: Peter RaeForget about the monuments and sites, the best part of a holiday is people watching, says Mem Fox.
Which was your best holiday?
I recently travelled to France with my daughter, husband and grandson. We built up Paris like mad for my grandson, who’s only two – we talked to him about all the major attractions and read him books like Madeline. When he saw the Eiffel Tower, it was one of the most joyful things I’ve experienced in a foreign country. He threw his arms wide and said, “The Eiffel Tower! I have to see Madeline!” We kept having to say, “She’s at school,” or, “She’s still in hospital. We can’t see her today.” He couldn’t believe book life was becoming real.
The best hotel you’ve stayed in?
The Chedi hotel in Oman. There was a massive outdoor breakfast area in the most exquisite surroundings. You’re there in the middle of the desert but close to the sea, all the pools were infinity pools and, oh my god, the Chedi breakfasts were absolutely sensational. The staff were divine and it was the most enriching experience, culturally. Truly once in a lifetime.
What do you need for a perfect holiday?
A lot of time doing nothing but people watching. I’m far more interested in watching what people do, the way they live in their own country, what they wear, what they eat and the houses they live in, than the monuments or the sights. I think sometimes we rush through countries, ticking off the attractions, but that’s missing the point. You experience other cultures to give you a kind of shock that makes you look at your own culture. You appreciate it more as a result of being out of it, but you also realise there are some things lacking in your culture.
What do you always take with you?
A change of clothing in my overhead luggage. So often my luggage goes missing and if I’ve got to do a speech the next day, I just need clean underwear, basic black, and a scarf and I’m all right. I have been caught without it in the past and you feel terrible giving a speech in clothes you’ve been travelling in for 36 hours.
What’s your best travel advice?
Whatever disaster happens with flights or things going pear-shaped, that’s part of the holiday. Often the things that go wrong are the things you remember most. I felt this many years ago when my husband and I were in India. We booked a hotel that ended up being next to a rubbish dump that both humans and pigs were eating from. We had to get out of there even before we’d put our bags in the room, but we’d seen something so horrifying that we never forgot it and it made us appreciate our own good fortune and look at life completely differently.
Where do you want to go next?
Berlin. Apparently, it’s a humming, edgy, divine city. My husband went to stay there recently and he said Berlin was urban Paris.
Which was your worst holiday?
When we’d been married for 30 years, my husband and I did a big trip because we’d never really celebrated our wedding anniversary, and our first stop was Barbados. We were supposed to be there for four days, but on the first day there was a hurricane. It was so sudden and so fierce that the water was two inches [five centimetres] into our bedroom before we realised how horrific it was. We decided to get out immediately. We got one of the last taxis and planes out.
Your worst experience on holiday?
I was in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea working in one of the schools. I was going straight from the school to the airport and the woman organising my journey put my suitcase into her car, having forgotten that her husband was going to use her car during the day. All my luggage, my passport, everything was in there. This was before mobile phones, so we literally drove around Port Moresby hoping to catch her husband somewhere. I was ready to vomit, I was in such a state of stress. We happened to see him just in the nick of time. It was a miracle because it was like a needle in a haystack.
What’s the biggest packing mistake you’ve made?
I’m a seasoned traveller and a very organised packer. I have a going-away checklist on my computer that I print even if I’m going away for a day. People think of writers as being untidy and crazy, but I’m just much more like an accountant, really – very tidy and incredibly well organised.
What’s the worst hotel you’ve stayed in?
It was in country South Australia. There was no option other than this place. They said it was a bed and breakfast, but the breakfast was set up on the kitchen counter, which also doubled as a bathroom basin, so you were cleaning your teeth in the kitchen sink. I don’t mind roughing it – I’m not a diva at all – but we staggered up flights of stairs with our luggage, and at the top the woman said, “Did you bring your own sheets?” No, I didn’t, so she gave me some and I had to make my own bed. Absolutely appalling.
What do you avoid on holiday?
Seeing anybody from home. For me, it’s about getting away from everything.
What do you hate about holidays?
Usually the pillows. They’re almost always too soft, particularly because I’m an asthmatic. I used to travel with my own pillow in my youth. I had a friend make me a cover with two little handles so I could carry it, but that just became silly. You have to pull yourself together and just deal with it.
As told to Nina Karnikowski
Mem Fox’s latest book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, is in bookstores now.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.