Growing up, our vacations were modest affairs. To save money we traveled by car, we stayed in the U.S., we camped out or stayed in cheap hotels, and we sought out free attractions.
Our goal was more to economize than enjoy. It was as if my parents were being forced to take us on vacation, and were determined to do it as cheaply as possible.
After one particularly miserable vacation, when we returned home hot, sweaty and caked in dirt (no showers or air conditioning), I started thinking the purpose of vacation was, perversely, to make our non-vacation life appear better. It was only after spending a week without a shower, after all, that I truly appreciated the shower in our house.
So upon attaining adulthood, and getting a job, when I found myself earning enough money to go on my own vacation I initially decided against it. Instead of traveling the world, I stayed in my apartment, reading. Pathetic, maybe, but at least I wasn’t hot, sweaty and caked in dirt afterwards.
Then along came a wife and some kids who have other ideas about vacation. Now I no longer spend vacations cooped up in my house reading. Instead, I must travel.
But I do so with conditions:
Having paid a lifetime’s dues as a child, I no longer rough it. Camping is simply not an option, and hotels must be comfortable and quiet. I used to insist that we had to stay in places that were nicer than where we lived, but I can no longer do that.
I do not do sightseeing. The idea of tearing through a country, guidebook in hand, manically snapping photos of every historical or natural sight worth seeing is simply not my idea of fun. If you want to see the sights, buy a coffee table book.
Meeting new people is also not something I like to do. Partly this is because I am not a meet-new-people kind of person, but mostly it’s because my view is that people are pretty much the same wherever you go, so if you really want to meet someone new, walk down your street and introduce yourself to the people you meet there. You don’t need to travel halfway around the world to do that.
So what do I like to do? I do enjoy getting the feel for the rhythm of life as it’s lived in different places. I like to rent a house and just live in a new place for a week or two or three or more. We usually take a few day trips to satisfy my family’s sight-seeing urges, but mostly we just hang around and marinate in a new place.
I have found that vacating-by-marinating works best for me when I am in a place I might actually want to move to. That gets me interested in its culture, its institutions, its immigration policies, its real estate market, how it stacks up next to where I currently live.
For me this is not some idle while-away-the-time pursuit. It is serious. I vividly remember as a kid reading about the build-up to World War II and wondering why more people didn’t get the hell out of Germany when they had the chance. I vowed to myself I would always have one or two back-ups lined up in case, for whatever reason, I chose to leave the U.S. So when on vacation, while my family is enjoying themselves, I am investigating whether I’d want us to move there.
This summer the family is voting for France, but it is very unlikely I’d ever want to move there. I am therefore trying to steer them towards Switzerland, a country that is much higher on my potential-move-to list. And if I really score, I might even convince them to take side trips to Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, thereby allowing me to investigate three countries on my potential-move-to list in one trip.
Looking back at what I wrote above, I can see that my attitude towards vacations is not all that different from my parents’. I, like them, approach vacation with a grim determination to do something other than enjoy myself. The only difference is they were determined to save money, while I am determined to find a safe haven.
At least I’m not hot, sweaty and caked in dirt when I return.
If I return, that is.