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August 17, 2006


Throughout my childhood, we took European holidays. This was relatively unusual in the '50s: fewer families owned cars & there was still a sense that Europe, being 'abroad', was linguistically alien & culturally inaccessible. Maybe there remained a consciousness of Europe as the place that our soldiers were sent to & that our aircraft bombed.

But my parents were francophiles & with close friends living in Paris whose holidays were taken in Brittany, France was always the base from which we operated. So lots of driving got done as we headed off down what is now La Route du Soleil, branching off to go to Switzerland, Austria (my mother refused to countenance any crossing of the German border), Italy &, once, Yugoslavia.

In those days, foreign vehicles were scarce & if one saw another English car, horns were sounded & occupants waved frantically. But in the small hotels & pensions that my parents favoured over the classier places, the occasional other English family would be studiously avoided. An encounter, it was felt (although never articulated) would in some way defile the purity of the experience of total absorption in the foreign ambience.

Some time after my father retired, my parents moved to the south of France, spending the winter & spring in Provence & the high summer (when those irritating foreigners prevailed) in the UK. So my now grown up children, my first wife & I were able to spend the whole of our summer holiday in simple but glorious surroundings. For which we shall always be enormously grateful.

Times have changed &, like you, Beth, we don't take holidays. Largely for financial & logistical reasons (shifting babies & toddlers has much in common with a mini house move), we haven't gone away for 4 years now. Living in the country has taken the edge of watching neighbours packing SUVs & heading for the ferry, but I have an increasingly aggravating itch to get back to France. So, maybe next summer we'll risk the domestic upheaval (& those uniquely enervating en route rows) & head of to Brittany...

Sorry, Beth, I got a bit carried away & this has expanded from comment to post!

beth, it was fun to hear something about your childhood on the farm. would love to hear more.

i grew up in the city, and most of my friends were away for nearly the entire summer - being italians they vacated the city! - and i spent hours and days alone on our awninged porch reading or playing my pennywhistle flute! we usually spent at least one week in august by the seaside. i loved it!

knew no one who went to europe (although many who came from there, including my father) until college.

What a beautiful post. Thank you. Is it the puritanism of the US which makes the work ethic so unnecessarily (to this degenerate European) over-emphasised?

When I was around 10 we'd probably have spent 3 weeks of the summer school holiday on the Isle of Man with my maternal grandmother. But there were 8 weeks off all together. For the other 5 we would run wild with the other children living on the same road. Opposite our house was a huge (to us) expanse of wilderness which was actually the extensive grounds of a now non-existant house which had been allowed to run wild for years. We spent hours exploring, making camps, climbing trees, playing complex imaginary games in our gangs. When we tired of that environment we would go down to the river which ran at the bottom of the hill, the deserted sewage works and rampage there. Fish for tiddlers with nets, for trout with hooks and worms. It was fortunate that during the games of dare which involved running along the thin brick walls dividing the tanks of ancient green sewage nobody ever fell in.

I grew up on Cape Cod.
Summer was paradise!

Don't apologize, Dick, what you and Tournesol wrote were exactly the sort of comments I was hoping for!

Kasturi, I didn't grow up on a farm; my family lived in town and then, from age 7, we had the lake place, but my cousins and at least half of the other kids I knew lived on farms - so their experience was part of mine, and very much set the rhythm and tone of that area of the country.

The Yankee work ethic did come out of puritanism, I think, and it's influenced Protestant New England WASPS like me for generations. I am trying to learn from the French how to relax and simply enjoy life without having to have "accomplished" anything at the end of the day - as a writer, I'm dubious about whether that's possible, or even what I want: the trick for me is to work when I need to work, and really relax, without guilt, when I need to relax. Having said that - summers were pretty heavenly for me too, as a kid - free reign to explore the woods, a tree house to read and draw in, long days of swimming and fishing and boating, berry-picking, plenty of doting adults and lots of day-dreamy time alone. Meanwhile my parents were building their own house, with their own hands, and working just about every minute!

It's not just the Yankees - these damn Germans we have down here in PA (my mother's people) work pretty hard, too! For us, as kids, the main thing was escaping school. Vacation = no school. Of course, we had the same farm chores as the rest of the year, plus berry picking, which I was never particularly fond of, and gardening, which I enjoyed. About once a week Mom packed up a picnic lunch and took us kids off to go swimming at one of the nearby streams or lakes. But other than its relative lack of water, where we lived, surrounded by our own woods, was paradise enough.

I've spent a lot of time in the States doing academic stuff and I've always been amazed and horrified at how hard Americans have to work. From birth onwards life seems to be one huge competition - to be the best at whatever one does - and that means hard work, without end. I used to discuss this with American academics - one of whom told me that she'd never "done nothing" on a plane trip - she would have felt too guilty; she always took grading or some other work with her to do. I used to look on with a mixture of admiration and horror -it all seemed such a nightmare to my British/European eyes.

One day, in Atlanta, I set off for a hair appointment and was a few minutes late. "Sorry," I told the hairdresser, "It's such a lovely day, I was sauntering in the park." "What's sauntering?" he exclaimed, "God, you British are so weird!"


Family roadtrip first week of August. I remember we did the Thousand Islands once. Niagara Falls was a recurrent one. Smoky Mountains, Loray Caverns, roadside attractions. The shop picnic was to Boblo Island for a day of merry-go-rounds and rides. I always got carsick, father aways got angry, and got us up pre-dawn to get in some miles.

I take weekends throughout the year now, and we take a weekend around our birthdays. I long for a month to get away, all our lives would be healthier and happier if we did.

I spent this vacation learning better how to be present in the vacation, to ignore the waiting work.

When I was ten, it was easy to be present. Buzz and I rode our bikes to the pool and to the Seven-Eleven all summer. At night, we snuck into the country club and waded barefoot in the water for golf balls while the toads shrieked.

Indian Ball. Toss up the baseball and swing, an in-fielder and an out-fielder makes three. It would seem like all day, in the sun, dust and heat, stopping only when sunstruck or at the fall of darkness or a lost ball. To lose a ball would take some doing, a heculean swing at just the right degree of azimuth and POW, over the forsythia jungle and up onto the tan, riverstone macadam then down the gutter to a storm sewer.
A great time of idleness. It occurs to me now how pure and intense the idleness was, an idleness of appetites and urges. How the ice-box steamed when reaching for ice or juice. I scarcely remember having a family or friends. Everything was in my skin and in the hungry contact with heat, tree bark. Blooming Wisteria signalled its beginning and Catalapa pods the approach of the end. I suppose summer was in the air, mostly. If I ever went away anywhere having done so left no impression on me. When I was eight we did get a country place and I remember the boredom, long mornings of not knowing what to do with myself, the lack of privacy and the discomfort of the plain farm house.
No TV! I felt naked and at risk without it. One couldn't play ball in a stubbled hay field. There was no one to play with, anywhere! Coming back to the streets of our neighborhood in the late Sunday afternoon light, tennis players busy at the courts, mowed lawns speading under Pin Oaks and the piano waiting in the living room was always elegaic, bittersweet, and seemed a return to a love that had not missed me. But Monday would come and I would do my best to find out if that were really true.

When I was very small, my sister and I were sent on a winter vacation to some kind of boarding school/camp in the mountains in France. I hated it. We had to eat "salsify" (what *is* that horrible vegetable?). There was hole in the floorboards through which I spied on the dormitory below. I wrote letters to my parents begging them to come and take us home but in photos on a sled in the snow I look quite happy. Not true. When I was in school in America, we went to summer camp in Phoenicia in the Catskills, run by the same nuns who taught school in term time. Didn't enjoy it and nearly drowned swimming in the lake. Best vacation I ever had was when I was about fifteen and went to a summer art school in Provincetown, painting on the beach in the sun, walking in the dunes. Bliss.

Spent summer holidays just running free in the fields and woods and streams that surrounded our town. Family holidays were what we in England call 'Bucket and Spade' holidays - just playing on the beach and in the sea and the rockpools at undeveloped (commercially) spots along the coast. We'd be on the sand from (almost) dawn until dusk, entertaining ourselves. I can't imagine children settling for that now! It was all just 'being' in a way that I have to strive for now.

The summer I was ten, my dad and I went on a long road trip through Canada, heading west from Nova Scotia. It was in August, which is the month that he had custody of me. This was 1978.

He had an orange VW Rabbit that we called The Millennium Falcon after Han Solo's ship in Star Wars. Along the way we listened to tapes of Urubamba and The Beatles, especially The White Album.

In Saskatchewan we passed a biciclist biking up a long, long, gentle incline. From time to time we still joke that he is still on his way up that hill.

In Alberta we enjoyed Lake Louise, and hiked in Baniff National Park. I remember the wind and light on the mountainsides filling me with their energies. It's partly experiences like that that have kept me sane and content with this world when other things have gone wrong.

In Victoria, British Columbia, we went to an aquarium. We saw the killer whale show. There were two killer whales there, a trained adult and an untrained juvenile who had come only recently from the wild. The young one was Miracle, so-named because idiots with automatic rifles had shot and killed her mother, and wounded her, and the veterinarians at the aquarium had taken her in and nursed her back to health.

After the show, which mainly involved the older whale, I made friends with Miracle, stretching down over the fence and petting her face. Then I lay down and reached under the fence to pet her face some more, and feel her sharp, conical teeth, and shake her tongue, which the trainer had said killer whales like.

After a while my shoulder got sore and I stood up. Moments later an employee of the aquarium came running up, agitated: "Oh my God! Was somebody playing with the killer whale? Someone said some kid was playing with the killer whale! She's not trained! She's dangerous! She could bite someone's arm off!"

My dad and I did our best to look invisible.


Photos of Miracle appear here: http://www.orcahome.de/miracle.htm

Wow - what great stories you all are telling! Thank you! Let's hear some more...

I started out to agree about Americans' horrible habit of not taking much vacation and then began to think about the more blissful parts of my childhood vacations -- which were always about DOING something. On the beach in Canada, I'd spend the day building elaborate constructions and rebuilding them when the weather brought them down. I'd arrange intense, elaborate games with my friends and when we got older, organize expeditions to explore the island. It's nice to be idle for a while, but I get bored easily; I WANT, in Emerson's phrase, to be up and doing.

I have just reached the end of a week's vacation in which I sent my wife and daughter away and spent the week working around the house. I did some big jobs, got very dirty and tired, and at the end I feel -- if not exactly rested -- at least relieved that these things are done, and eventually I may even be proud of my handiwork.

So I submit, humbly, that there is nothing horrible in the American habit of limiting vacations and working more than Europeans; it's just different, just like the other cultural differences we celebrate all the time.

My Dad being a teacher, we basically had summer-long vacations, but we didn't go much of anywhere, usually. Two- or three- day trips to hike or climb mountains or spelunk. Day trips to the ocean, building sandcastles -- we kids would work all day building castles and trying to defend them against the tide, frantically rebuilding what the waves washed away, finally retreating up the beach and building again. Or standing knee-deep in the bitterly cold water, "wave-jumping."

I started writing a comment but it's turned into a three-part article on my blog (part one is posted, part two probably tomorrow evening, part three towards the end of the week).

What wonderful, fascinating answers people have given!

My tenth summer my parents got an AIR CONDITIONER! The first one on the block. Just one. In their bedroom. We lived in Queens. It was 1947. I had a double set of miniature playing cards with Micky Mouse on the back. My best friend came over every day and we played Micky Mouse Canasta in my parents' air-conditioned bedroom all afternoon, all summer long. I'm sure we did other things, but that's all we both remember. As we got older, we never played Canasta again! I guess we got it out of our system.

Like a lot of people in the south, we spent most of our vacations visiting relatives. But when I was really young (in the early 60s), the newspaper my father worked for owned some land at a mountain lake, and employees could stay in cabins there one week per year. (For free, I believe.) The smell of pinestraw, old life jackets, and gasoline/lake water mixed together are very nostalgic for me!

I agree with Peter that our cultural differences with Europeans (and Canadians?) vis-a-vis work and play aren't necessarily bettr or worse. But my personal preference is for the European style. I come from a talking family, and grew up without T.V., so you might say I have a very high threshold of boredom. Fun for me is getting together with a few old friends over coffee or beer and shooting the shit for hours. I can tolerate a little bit of card-playing, but would rather just talk. Games annoy me -- why would you want to destroy leisure time by turning it into work? That's why I'm happy to live in Central Pennsylvania, where people still often choose to sit outside on their front porches of a summer evening and chat with passers-by, just as I've seen African-American and Hispanic folks doing in their neighborhoods. I'd be curious to know if anyone's studied the differences in leisure activity between front stoop/porch people and back deck people.

La photo "chard " est magnifique !
J'en adore la composition et les couleurs !

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