Remember those assignments you used to get in school in the first week after summer holidays? You’d have to write out what happened over your holiday, taking care to use as neat handwriting as you possibly could, despite the fact that your six year-old brain could barely remember which way round an ‘e’ was written. You would go through an intense effort trying to make it sound as exciting as possible. To this end, it is quite probable that you lied to your teachers. How were they to know that you didn’t ACTUALLY kill a puma with your bare hands? What evidence could they use to disprove the story of you saving your father’s life after he was dragged into an Surinamese river by a Capybara? Nothing. You could say what you wanted.
Back then the, relatively, short school holiday felt like it lasted forever. A whole month and a half of uninterrupted pleasure awaited you, free from the pressures of the multiplication tables and the study of ‘minibeasts’. The nuances of what you studied at this age may differ slightly, but you understand what I mean I am sure.
So then when we arrive at university and suddenly realise that we have a full three months, or even more in some cases, of summer holiday to fill can come with some excitement. Over ninety days, and well over two thousand hours back at home, with the summer stretching before you. Maybe you’ll travel Asia. Perhaps spend every weekend on a different city break. Perchance meet your soulmate in Paramaribo, the same place where you saved your father’s life that time…
And then September strikes, and you realise that you’ve spent what feels like 80% of the holiday with one hand in a packet of crisps and the other holding a TV remote as you stoically flick through every channel on Sky for the eighteenth time that afternoon despite acknowledging that you will just eventually default to Storage Hunters. Perhaps you went away for a couple of weeks or so with your parents, awkwardly trying not to drink the same amount that you have for the entire semester before that. Maybe you escaped for a weekend piss-up in some cheap corner of the globe, but for many of you I’m sure the summer passed in a heady haze of working, sleeping, eating, and marinating in your own misery. I am sure that some of you spent a marvellous few months in Malawi or a life-changing three weeks spelunking in Montenegro, but I am sure that many of you were simply counting down the days to coming back to auld Fife.
Now, it is at this point that I will move from holidays onto the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, namely small-talk. Normally it passes one by; the discussion of the weather while getting a haircut, a mention of how much well someone is looking no matter the extent of their ghostly pallor at the moment of meeting, or even the brief piece of flanter with a particularly attractive coffee shop worker. It is a natural part of life. Some people are particularly adept at it, leading to descriptions such as ‘charming’ or ‘mature’ in their innocent youth, which develop swiftly into profanities such as ‘smarmy b*stard’ or ‘minister of parliament’ once middle age beckons. There is, however, something deeply infuriating about small-talk after coming back from the summer holidays. Everything revolves around the same question: ‘so what did you do over summer?’. Minutes which feel like hours go by as you attempt to cobble together your frankly miserable existence during the longest, brightest days of the year into as short a sentence as possible so you can continue purchasing tagliatelle in Tesco. Only seeing rain-sodden people in ‘Superdry’ jackets gives me as much pleasure as seeing somebody corkscrewing wildly in the street as they attempt to cobble together their Orange is the New Black marathon into something resembling a respectable way to pass their July.
The beauty of small talk is that both sides feel obliged to stumble blindly onwards into it, despite being utterly exasperated by the apparent necessity of it. When somebody walks up to another person and asks how their holiday was, you can see them instantly glaze over thicker than a Fisher and Donaldson doughnut. Of course SOME people may care about your summer, but the likelihood is that you could count those people on both of Abu Hamza’s hands. If you are genuinely not interested in somebody’s answer to a question, then don’t ask it. Of course it is never a deliberate attempt to be boring, it’s just an almost automatic reaction to bumping into a casual acquaintance in the street here, but we need to shake ourselves out of it.
So here is what I propose. Should somebody ask you about your holiday, and you see their eyes begin to gaze into the middle distance the second the question has left their lips, simply make something up. Wax lyrical over the beauty of the mountains of Bhutan, spin a yarn over a kayaking adventure in Azerbijan or even re-use that capybara story. After all, it doesn’t matter. They aren’t listening anyway.