The prospect of taking a trip to a place I've never been before has always excited me - especially if that place is in a foreign country. I like to learn a little about the destination by reading and hearsay and then let my imagination go to work, elevating it - in the manner of a holiday brochure or a Royal Geographical magazine feature - into a place of mystery, wonder, beauty or whatever. Our forthcoming visit to the Cote d'Azure, however, has not enthused me in the usual way. Could it be that my appetite for adventure is waning? Or is going there simply not much of an adventure?
The answer may lie partly in familiarity, brought about by the easy abundance of images, information and opinion available in the media and on the net. Before you set foot in a place it is now possible to tour it virtually, canvas the experiences of a variety of strangers, check the weather forecast, and anticipate every meal. It's got to the point of questioning whether it's actually worth paying to go there at all - unless of course you have some specific reason. Be that as it may, our flight is booked and, after many hours spent on comparison websites, so is the hotel.
Meanwhile we have been exploring closer to home - a farmers market on Hampstead Heath - where I found I was having a discussion with myself. Should it be "farmers' market" or "farmers market"? The possessive apostrophe implies ownership by farmers, whereas the unqualified plural implies that farmers themselves are being offered for sale. But what about the bakery stalls? Surely "produce market" would describe the enterprise more accurately? Just as I was coming to the painfully logical conclusion that the apostrophe is shorthand for the absence of intermediary retailers, I spotted a pile of punnets full of gooseberries. "They're very early," I said nodding in their direction.
"They're not gooseberries. They're cucamelons," said my partner.
"A cross between cucumber and melon."
"What's the point of those?" I huffed and turned my attention to the more appealing artisan pies on the adjacent stall.
We bought the makings of a picnic and laboured uphill towards a place with a view, all the while taking turns at suggesting exotic destinations for our traditional escape from Christmas - which is not so easy: I remember once, in Marrakech, being urged by a stallholder to buy an inflatable Santa; and another time, at an eco-lodge in Dakhla oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, being surprised to see tinsel on the dining table. These may be the merest token trappings of the festival but they confounded our efforts at denial and mocked our attempt to establish a counter-culture.
But our thoughts were diverted by the overheard conversation of a trio of teenage girls accompanied by an adult woman. It's not often - never, actually - that I hear teenage girls vying to out-do each other in their knowledge of Homer (not Simpson) and so I listened with interest: "All the best stories are in The Odyssey," claimed one.
"But what about the wooden horse of Troy," said another?
"That's in The Iliad," came a reply.
"But was it true? I mean I know there was one in the film but was it true?"
"Check it on Epicadvisor," said her pal, brandishing a phone.
Eventually we decided to consider going to Beirut, agreeing that although it won't be a Christmas-free zone, it should at least have a "bit of an edge" to it. Back at home, having been tasked with researching hotels, I scanned endless identical websites for one that looked a bit ethnic or exotic but my attention wandered after an hour or so: instead I found myself Googling "cucamelon". Or should that be "cucumelon"?