Life & Culture

An overseas Pesach jaunt with my elderly parents - what could go wrong?

I’m not sure what the opposite of a health farm is but it’s probably a ‘Pesach hotel’


Chaperone: Misha Mansoor in Spain for Passover

“Mum, just so you know, you will lose granddad at the airport. It’s not a matter of if or maybe. You will lose him.”

For the first time, I was to be my parents’ carer on their all-inclusive Pesach overseas jaunt, something they’ve been doing for the past few years. You know, the joy of not having to worry about the intensive cleaning, cooking and general bother of it all while enjoying a bit of a sunny holiday at the same time.

I’d laughed when my daughter Leora, their usual chaperone, issued this warning, but not as I frantically searched Heathrow departure lounge for the errant 90-year-old. Despite the “special assistance” arranged for my parents, my dad had yet again managed to escape the airport’s wheelchair and wandered off. Special Assistance is a new kind of hell I’ve discovered. If you require Special Assistance then you will get it. Just. Very. Very. Very. Slowly.

My mother, from her wheelchair, is shrieking in panic. I tell her, patronisingly, nobody’s likely to kidnap an old man at an airport. “But Misha, he could end up on the wrong plane.”

This is true. My dad could very easily bumble his way onto a plane to Barbados rather than Barcelona. I start to panic a bit too. Then I find him. He’s looking at expensive shiny gadgets.

The hotel is an hour north of Barcelona. The lobby is utter chaos. The day before Erev Pesach and more than 700 guests are all trying to check in at once in a manner so frenzied you’d believe you were watching a disaster movie. It’s where I get my first real taste of things to come. And the French children. Les enfants terribles.

They are running around screaming. It’s what French children do. All the time. All day. And all night.

It’s an age before we get our correct rooms. My parents need one with the bathroom adapted for the disabled and I – as their carer – need to be adjoining. Those rooms are specifically next to the elevator for guests with difficulty walking. “Great,” we think, for about five minutes, retreating into the sanctuary of our rooms, until we realise that the space outside the lifts is where all the children on our floor congregate to play. All day. And all night.

We assume it was just the little terrors’ excitement at arriving, that they’d soon settle. How young and naive we were then.

I unpack my clothes. My holiday wardrobe is like no other I’ve ever packed. I’ve basically had to pack for a ten-day funeral. My mother is convinced my cleavage could bring about the end of civilisation as she knows it. In the months leading up to the trip she constantly warned me of the importance of ultra-modest clothing and none of my obscene décolletage.

I’d tried on all my dresses and tops and discovered that I had a cleavage problem. A hefty trip to Primark had been necessary to buy black clothes that went right up to my neck, over my elbows and down below my knees. I looked like a Greek widow. This pleased my mother.

Although Pesach begins the next evening, the hotel is, understandably, already chametz-free and Pesach-ready. It’s closed to its usual bookings and catering only for Jews celebrating Pesach. The big event – the first Seder night – is a disaster. The hotel’s single dining room is gargantuan but we’re supposed to be sharing a big table in a cordoned-off area with a very large London family whom my parents knew.

The pre-Seder prayers had gone on until past 9pm but, even so, when all the guests were gathered outside the dining room the doors were kept firmly shut by the staff who hadn’t finished preparing the tables. We waited and waited, everyone becoming increasingly fractious; tantrums from both children and adults were abundant and, in some cases, quite spectacular. When the doors finally opened – at 11pm – there was a stampede akin to the Running of the Pamplona Bulls.

We never did get that promised VIP table and we sat every day in that enormous dining room with more than 700 people for a chaotic buffet at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Children ran amok – as excitedly in there as they did in the rest of the hotel. I sighed in despair surveying them, until I noticed, on the second day, The Wine Wagon. A little oasis of calm in the mad mêlée! Two expressionless sommeliers were there for every lunch and dinner, doling out endless glasses of Passover wine and whisky. If you didn’t begin Pesach with a drinking problem, you got one to go home with one.

Once I’d seated my mother, recovered my wandering father, and visited the big bland buffet, I’d head to The Wagon for me and my parents. My parents, who usually just have a tipple on Friday nights, were now necking it back lunch and dinner. It was the only way to cope: never mind double-dipping, people were quadruple-dipping. Serving spoons were ignored. Ironically, I recall thinking to myself, both buffet and etiquette are words given to us by the French.

After morning prayers (Shacharit) there would be a huge Kiddush at 12.30 by the big sparkling pool. Everyone dressed in their finest (though I was in my ancient crone attire), an abundantly stocked Wine Wagon (manned by the solemn sommeliers), the Spanish sun blazing and a fine spread of Kiddush food: you might have imagined you were at an exclusive party in Beverly Hills were it not for the hundreds of maniacal children. Still, at least we had The Wagon.

There were “prawns and crabsticks” at the buffets as well, made from plants. These looked fun and realistic and were supposed to add a playfulness. They were exceptionally, unbelievably bland. Cardboard-tasting prawns aside, the Kiddushes were tasty and substantial. Lunch at 2pm seemed crazy, but from Kiddush by the pool at 12.30pm we went to lunch in the dining room at 2pm. At 4.30pm there would be daily cakes in the lobby and then dinner at 8pm. You were never more than about six minutes away from the next mouthful. I’m not sure what the opposite of a health farm or detox spa is but it’s probably “a Pesach Hotel”.

In the sun by the pool I longed to change out of my black widow clothes and swim. I showed my mother my demure swimming skirt and sports top and she almost fainted. Shame! Busha! My dad had to revive her with whisky from The Wagon. She made me wear a long-sleeved top as well. So I swam in the pool, looking like I’d fallen in fully-clothed. Guests came from all over. Predominantly France, then the US, and then the rest of Europe and a few Israeli families.

Most guests were religious and many women wore wigs. Some changed their wigs daily, which made things very confusing.

I struck up a friendship with one woman who I then ignored the next day until she identified herself to me again.

The Americans were super-friendly and fun. One couple said: “Pleased to meet you. Greg and Pearl, from Cincinnati, Ohio, how do you do?”

I’d waited my whole life for that level of Americanness. In the lobby, while we waited for prayers to end and for The Wagon to re-open, we played cards, chess or sheshbesh and the darling French children played screaming and running.

There were occasions when the harmony of hundreds of men from various Jewish traditions praying in different rooms at the same time was achingly beautiful. This year I’m going with my parents again to another Pesach hotel in Spain. But this won’t be my first rodeo. I’ll be equipped with a GPS tracker bracelet for my dad, a bottle of Pesach chilli sauce for the buffet food, and, vitally, hundreds of top-quality earplugs. Can’t wait.

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