Most Americans get one week of paid vacation a year, assuming they work for a company that even pays for vacation time, a barbaric practice that makes workers insane, scared of leaving the office for more than a few days because “it’s just not done”, and most make do with a few long week-ends here and there. As I said, barbaric. Believe it or not, Chinese workers get more vacation time (go ahead, Google it, it’s true).
When the company I used to work for offered me a transfer to LA, as part of my compensation package, I negotiated the same amount of vacation I was entitled to as an Italian employee – that would be 30 days a year. I quickly found out that my ritual of taking 3 to 4 weeks in the Summer just would not do in this country until, a couple of years in, I decided to screw it and operate under the assumption that nobody is that valuable and, as I had the time, I was going to use it. How else is one supposed to see the world with the hard-earned money we make?? (maybe not these days, but in those oh so heady times of Clinton yore).
Planning a vacation or deciding where to go and who to go with can be a stressful enterprise all in itself if you, like me, won’t even remotely consider travel agencies or any form of organized vacation. We invest so much, and not just financially, in our planned time off, we imagine all sorts of fantastic relaxation and revelatory opportunities, lazy hours spent on a hammock with a Martini at our side, half a dozen of the tomes we have been meaning to read gone through in a week, reaching the top of Kilimanjaro with no set-backs, meeting the man (or the fling) of our dreams, or whatever it is that we stuff our vacation dream bag with.
I stopped vacationing with my parents at the age of 15 – long sojourns in the United Kingdom, purportedly to perfect my English but, really, to kiss boys and, aside from one disastrous holiday in Sardinia with a bunch of friends from college I was very close to, I have wonderful memories of each and every trip. Even of when things went horribly wrong in Greece and the boat to my island of choice broke down, or tramping to Mayan ruins at 5 in the morning, trailed by a tour group of Germans shouting “Super” (pronounced tzuper) at every turn, forever changing my view of the Mayan experience, or of when I was pulled aside in Tel Aviv for a pat down and an interrogation in a private room that had me scared out of my wits and on an on. We all have travel nightmare stories that make for very good dinner party conversation.
But sticking to a few, simple rules has served me very well over the years and, hopefully, will serve me well on my upcoming trip (if I do get to go, that is, and no other disaster befalls me between now and Sunday).
- Do not have any expectations. The hotel might or might not be as wonderful as the website makes it out to be. A dark-haired and charming Italian might or might not take you for ice-cream in Piazza Navona. The sights might or might not be all that you hoped for. The kids might or might not behave. It doesn’t matter. If there is a time to truly stay in the moment and go with the flow, it’s when you are away from it all.
- Know who you are going away with. And think about it very carefully. For who I am, a solo vacation is preferable to a group where way too many people need to agree on too many things, wasting valuable time and creating tension. Going away with my family is also a big no-no in my book, with just my sister a possible exception. There are people I love more than myself and I still wouldn’t go on vacation with just because I know their habits are very different from mine. I am allergic to mess, to taking too long, to too many hours in a museum, to sticking to plans no matter what. None of these quirks disappear just because we are on vacation.
- Do at least one thing or go to one place you haven’t done/been to before. Getting lost, being challenged in a different language, becoming familiar with a previously little known culture can only be enriching experiences. It can be as minor as trying a food I never tried before (but do watch for Montezuma’s revenge..)
- Be curious, even more curious than in everyday life. Ask questions, talk to people. It might lead to the dark, charming Italian taking you for ice-cream in Piazza Navona.
- By all means, be safe – a point my mother might find questionable after looking at the photos of the Bedouin camp in the Sinai I found myself in one year (and which might have led to the pat down at Ben Gurion airport) but don’t forego irreplaceable opportunities. A friend travelling on a train in India was invited to a wedding – she felt she could trust the middle-aged people who invited her and had a most amazing experience.
- Have fun no matter how wrong things go. Remember, you paid good money, there must be a silver lining somewhere and it all makes for a great dinner party story.