Café de Flore, 2006
Growing up, “vacation” wasn't in my family's vocabulary. There was summer vacation from school. There was vacation bible school. But the idea of a family vacation, one in which you would pack up the family car and go somewhere that involved an overnight stay, was unknown.
Neither of my parents came from families affluent or intact enough to have family vacation traditions or aspirations of such. Dad used his vacation time to do work around the house. My mother worked nearly all the years of my youth and if she had more than a few days off at a time, I don't remember how she used them. We surely didn’t go anywhere.
Part of the problem was the family itself. My parents' marriage was tenuous when I came along and when it finally ended so were ended any aspirations they might have had to become part of the growing American middle class.
We were lucky in that we lived barely a block from the ocean. The beach and Atlantic Ocean were ready recreational resources. Most of the neighboring families visited relatives when they vacationed. So the idea that you could actually go somewhere fun and do fun things was, while not completely foreign, not a given.
It wasn't until high school, when my classmates' families did things like go skiing--in Gstaad--that I realized that we weren't just poor but also completely out of the loop when it came to leisure travel. While my classmates were schussing down the slopes in Europe, school breaks for me meant finding part-time jobs to make spending money.
My wife and I didn't have a lot of discretionary income when we first married. But we managed to piece together a tradition of weekend and overnight outings. The first time we were able to travel internationally, I became one of those obnoxious people who, so smitten with the notion of seeing a foreign country, planned how every moment of the trip would be productive.
Needless to say, that was a fool's pursuit. My wife quickly made it clear that there was to be some actual leisure time involved.
Over the years I’ve learned more about leisure travel, the most important lesson being to not rush things. The easiest way to do this is not to take a trip where you have to pack and move on every day or so. We once took a Mediterranean cruise where for fourteen days we stopped in one, and sometimes two different ports each day. We weren’t packing and unpacking each day. But the effect was nearly the same. In a day ashore we didn’t have a chance to let the sense of any place reveal itself to us. We were too busy getting on and off a bus and making it to the next attraction before lunchtime. Europe 101, the survey course, I called it.
University Courtyard, Sienna, 2002
It wasn’t until about ten years ago that I finally learned the lesson of slowing way down. We had the opportunity to spend a week in Florence, Italy, and another in Venice. Later trips to England a France were similarly slowed way down so that we spent at least a week in any one place.
As you regular travelers know, even that isn’t enough. You can cover a lot of famous attractions in ten days in Paris, for example. But in all that running around you can still miss the essence of the city. To get that, you have to have lots of time to look and wander and wait and listen. Maybe it’s sitting in a café and watching people walk by for a few hours. Or catching a bus or subway and getting off at a stop you don’t know. Or just sitting in a window and watching the life of the street go by.
I was reminded of all this while listening to an interview with Woody Allen about his new movie Midnight in Paris. Asked whether the movie realistically portrays Paris or whether it’s a romanticized version of what affluent Americans think Paris is, Allen responded that he, like many of us, learned about foreign places through the movies. But movies don’t have an obligation to be accurate. They’re stories. Allen’s Manhattan is a romanticized version of what we’d like New York to be.
To understand a place, to get a sense of its sense, you’ve got to give it a lot of time. You have to give your mind and your eyes and ears time to slow down and listen to the things not noticed or heard on the first glance. Still, I wouldn’t mind being one of the characters in a Woody Allen movie. They sure seem to stay in much nicer hotels than we do.
Resting at Les Invalides, 2006