Last month, a woman sitting beside me and my son on a plane began to cry. My son is not yet two, and with no concept of personal space, no ability to understand that the nice man in the business suit with the noise-blocking headphones might not want a half-eaten cookie placed on his head, he always seems to test the limits of the friendly skies. I expected the unlucky person seated beside us to moan and fidget and sound sigh after exasperated sigh, but not to weep, and not so soon after take off.
I asked if she was okay. She nodded, cleared her throat. It seemed as though she had nothing else to say. But then, a few minutes into our flight she apologized and explained how she was returning home from a funeral, her twenty-year-old niece’s funeral. She told me about the pain and shock and senselessness of it all. She told me about the memorial service. And then she said something that seemed truly amazing. She said, “On top of everything, I’ve used up all my vacation days with this trip. I was going to go away with my kids but now I can’t. This was my vacation.”
I’ll admit that at first I was stunned. Was this woman really worrying about vacation days in the face of such tragedy? But as I continued to talk to her, it became increasingly clear that if anyone had ever needed a vacation, it was this woman – a single, full-time working mom with three kids under ten who’d rushed cross-country to her family member’s aid in a time of crisis and loss. And the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that of all the things American culture does well, it simply doesn’t get vacation – its importance not just for individual happiness but for families’ physical and emotional health.
I have plenty of pleasant vacation memories from my childhood – beach vacations mostly – but the emotional tenor of these memories is not one of long, lazy, relaxing days in the sun, not a pastoral of children playing, dogs barking, family and friends eating and talking outdoors late into the evening, but rather, six nights and seven days of trying to cram as much “fun” as possible into our annual trip. Not that I can complain; even our one-week forays were much more than many of my friends’ families experienced.
My father, a physician, who generally worked 7:00 am to 6:30 pm as well as every fourth weekend, had the flexibility to take a couple weeks off each year, though not together. In a country (the only one in the industrialized world) where employers are not required to offer employees any paid vacation, this arrangement was a pretty good deal. And yet still I remember so many of our holiday weeks as harried, stressful comedies of error. Something, it seemed, always went wrong. Flights were cancelled and pockets were picked. The Pepto-Bismol spilled in the luggage requiring someone to spend three days wearing a tee-shirt with a picture of a frog drinking a margarita. I remember one day in particular when four of us spent six hours in the back of a mini-van, then scaled a mud-slick mountain, all to visit some natural spring that turned out to consist of a small pool of standing water with a hairnet floating in it. At the end of so many of these trips we’d all be cranky and exhausted and sick of the sight of each other and wondering, a little bit, why we left in the first place. Family vacations, as I saw it, were basically a drag, an emotionally fatiguing obligation on par with schlocky Bar Mitzvah parties and grandparent dinners at the retirement home (yes, I’d love more fruit cocktail).
That was what I thought, anyway, until at the front-end of a study-abroad stint I spent a few weeks bumming around the Burgundian countryside in mid-August. What awaited me there was unlike anything I’d ever witnessed, an entire community, an entire region, on vacation. At the time, it all just seemed a charming cultural idiosyncracy, the concept of an entire country heading to the shore, the countryside or the mountains for four solid weeks. With the exception of grudge-holding and passive-aggressive mind-games, I couldn’t remember a time my family sustained any activity for that long. At the time, it simply seemed odd.
Only now, as I’ve begun to re-live all the stresses of short family excursions with my own family, has it occurred to me what a wonderful gift such extended and mandatory vacations must be for the families who enjoy them, not just French families, it turns out, but families all across Europe, from Hungary to Ireland, from the cities of Scandanavia to Warsaw and Athens, where workers are guaranteed anywhere from twenty-two to twenty-five paid vacation days per year. It’s not just those decadent Europeans, either. And it also turns out it’s not just those decadent Europeans, either. I spoke to a Panamanian woman, Yanina Maffla, raising a family in Panama City. Though she works a forty-four hour work week and commutes an hour-and-a-half each day, and though she feels lucky to be in the country’s relatively small upper-middle class and not one of its agricultural workers living on a dollar a day, she’s still grateful that the government guarantees a month of paid vacation for every eleven months worked. Because they receive so much paid time off, she explained, and because many people lack the resources for formal travel arrangements, people tend not to prioritize going someplace exotic for vacations but rather take weekends away in other provinces, visiting family, spending time together by the beach. “Sometimes,” she says, “we would just stay at home, climbing trees and eating mango. But the culture is different. In Panama, we celebrate everything, every moment and occasion, so maybe we don’t feel the need to plan a vacation.”
I don’t have any plans to visit Panama, or France, or Poland. But from what Yanina Maffla says, I think what the American family needs, mine included, is a lot less planning and lot more time off, together.