Friday, August 22, 2008

Let’s face it, holidays are strange

Currently, I am on a northern hemisphere summer break, although I should say an alleged summer break. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, in Ireland and England, there is no summer. Summer is something you know everyone else is having while you sit in the rain, trying to remember what sunshine feels like. The easiest way to deal with this lack of summer is to travel abroad, but this is costly in these credit crunch days. So I find myself sitting at a British family resort trying to learn the difference between light showers, squally showers, rain and heavy rain. Secondly, I must admit, I also struggle with the whole concept of a holiday.

It is not that I am one of those grumpy people who do not like holidays. I love them – it is the idea I find weird.

People not only work to pay bills, but also so that they can have a break from work. Apparently, to enjoy your break, you cannot simply have a break – we are all so conditioned that we must do something with it. This something is called a holiday. Holidays cost money. So, in other words, you work to get money to pay others for the pleasure of not working. This strikes me as logical as banging your head against a wall because it feels good when you stop.

Of course, one option is to choose not to work at all and then go on holiday, which then means you are paying others to add something to your otherwise empty schedule. But being unemployed is not a comfortable state of affairs and makes buying time at a holiday resort rather difficult. The result of this is that it makes those of us who are employed happy enough to continue to pay not to work.

There are further problems. If you choose to stay at home on your break, now dubbed the ‘staycation’, it feels as if you are not on holiday. And if you choose not to stay at home, and if you are not lucky enough to have a second home at the beach or in the mountains, your choices are limited. Either you have to book a holiday home in some remote spot, or you have to sell your soul to a hotel group.

In exchange for money, hotels are happy to provide you with all the structure you need in your day to prevent you from feeling too far from work. They also promise endless entertainment from belly-dancing classes to parasailing and, unlike an isolated holiday cottage, guarantee your children can get to interact with others in play parks and swimming pools. This, in turn, helps your child learn valuable social skills.

For example, this holiday, my two-and-a-half-year-old son learned that one should never trust anyone, especially someone who wants the same toy as you. This valuable lesson was brought to him by a covetous toddler who attached himself to my son’s cheek with his teeth in an unprovoked playground attack. This left us wishing we had opted for the isolated holiday cottage.

For me, this sums up the core dilemma of holidays. Either you have to share purpose-built spaces and activities with others who might turn out to be little Mike Tysons, more interested in biting off ears than cooperative play, or you have to seclude yourself from the world, losing the advantage of having someone else laying all the entertainment you need at your doorstep.

So there is no perfect holiday, only moments of bliss and disaster. Every holiday has its price, whether it is inclement weather, a nasty souvenir bite, a little bit too much isolation, or too many structured activities that leave you exhausted and in need of another vacation. I long to find the balance, but I just don’t have enough free time to find it.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 22 August 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.