I’m currently on holiday in Iceland. I say ‘holiday’, but I’m with my three teenage sons so it’s more like being a supply teacher on a school trip. The scenery looks like a series of illustrations in a geography textbook – volcano, tectonic plate, glacier – but so far the boys aren’t impressed.
‘Every day is the same,’ said 17-year-old Ludo. ‘We wake up, drive somewhere, go on a walk, take pictures of a waterfall or a lava field, then walk back again.’ This produced murmurs of agreement. I told them they’d enjoy the sightseeing more if they looked up from their phones occasionally, but I don’t think this cut through. As we hiked across a mountain range on Monday to bathe in a hot spring, 15-year-old Freddie continued reading a graphic novel on his phone. When I asked him if he was ever going to read a real book, he defiantly told me it was about the unification of China in the 3rd century bc. ‘It’s actually really interesting,’ he said.
The only time their phones have been prised from their hands was when we spent the afternoon at Sky Lagoon in Reykjavik on Sunday. This is a more upmarket version of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction. You change into your swimming costume, then embark on a seven-step rejuvenation programme involving a massive geothermal spa, an icy plunge pool, a sauna, cold mist, a full body scrub, a steam room and then back into the giant hot tub. In truth, the boys might have looked up occasionally even if they hadn’t had to leave their phones behind, because everywhere you looked there were beautiful Icelandic girls in bikinis.
Caroline and I entertained ourselves by alerting them every time some blonde goddess hove into view. ‘Three o’clock, three o’clock,’ I would hiss, only to be met by a chorus of ‘Dad!’ followed by a lecture about why it was wrong to ‘objectify’ women. This finger-wagging was neither wholly sincere nor wholly ironic, but somewhere in between, which is their default register when discussing anything remotely controversial.
Even though I’m an embarrassing dad, Caroline holds the prize for the most embarrassing moment so far. This was at Sky Lagoon when a spectacularly pretty girl in a white bikini drifted past. ‘Here’s one for you boys,’ she said, but a little too loudly, and the girl immediately shot a dis-approving glance in our direction. The boys all reddened and averted their eyes, only to unleash their fury on Caroline the moment the girl was out of earshot: ‘Mum! Are you trying to get us arrested? Haven’t you heard of intrusive staring?’
In reality, of course, the three of them are much more embarrassing than their parents. When we were having dinner at a nice restaurant on Saturday night, 14-year-old Charlie disdainfully asked me why I was wearing a suit. I pointed out that while I was in a blazer and jeans, he was the one in a suit – a track suit. They were all wearing XL Nike track suits, along with baseball caps and ‘vintage’ trainers, also by Nike. They looked like a parody of urban teenagers. As Caroline said, it’s like being on holiday with Kevin and Perry.
Still, travel broadens the mind and seeing how other tourists react to them may yet produce an epiphany. Wandering through Reykjavik city centre, I asked a sophisticated-looking American family if they could recommend any good seafood restaurants. ‘We went to a really nice one yesterday, but I don’t think your boys would like it,’ said the matriarch of the clan, eyeing Ludo, Freddie and Charlie. ‘It’s a bit too fancy, if you know what I mean. But I think there’s a KFC nearby so maybe you can work something out.’
This produced howls of protest since they like to think of themselves as gourmands, but the truth is she had their number. The first time they registered any excitement about being in Iceland is when they discovered that a branch of KFC in Reykjavik had been ranked the best KFC in the world, even winning some kind of prize. Forget about the abundance of natural wonders. Here, finally, was something worth making a pilgrimage to.
I blame myself, obviously. If only I’d rationed the time they spent on screens and forced them to read Swallows and Amazons – if only I’d scrimped and saved and sent them to a posh boarding school – they’d now be dressed in Boden from head to toe and comparing notes on their favourite operas. But I’m not sure I’d prefer them that way. Deep down, they’re nice boys and it’s a lot of fun spending time with them.