Part I: The Vacation
I recently went on vacation. I don’t mean a family trip; I mean an honest-to-God vacation. Like, “in the movies” vacation. My husband and I flew into Rome, rented a car, drove up the coast and then into Tuscany, where we spent three glorious days with friends on a Tuscan farm and in the surrounding area. From there, we flew from Florence to Paris, where we stayed in another friend’s flat for the weekend before heading back to the States, our kids, and our lives.
It sounds like a fairy tale — and it was! — but, in all fairness, I should say that we hadn’t planned to go on this trip as of a month ago. Really, we had no business going on vacation. We’re both slammed with work, overloaded with email that needs to be returned, and projects needing attention at home, not to mention raising four kids. The children are getting increasingly expensive, especially with my oldest son starting to eat multiple rounds of breakfast and dinner, and, with all the activities from baseball to gymnastics to dance to everything else, we are running on a tight budget.
So, when friends told us that they had rented a house in Tuscany for the month of July and invited us to join them, I responded that it sounded like a dream. I mean, in what crazy world could that possibly happen? I mentioned it to my parents who said without batting an eyelash, “You have to go.” “Go?” I responded, “How can I go?! I can’t go. We’ve got the kids and work and …” I was quickly met with, “We’ll keep the kids. We’d love to have that time with them. Really, you should go. I mean, you have all those miles from the all the work trips. Why don’t you use them?” And, just like that, this wild fantasy was within reach. I mentioned it to my husband, who, in turn, mentioned it on a work trip to a colleague while in Beijing. The colleague (and possible new best friend) replied, “If you’re going to be in Italy, why not come to Paris for a few days? You can stay in our flat. We’re on holiday anyway!” And, just like that, we were going to Paris.
With free flights, free lodging, and free childcare, it’s awfully hard to turn down that offer. A friend remarked, “It’s like you’re cashing in all your karma points from working at a church!” That’s a bit how I felt. Or, more accurately, I felt like God gently set this vacation in my lap and whispered, “Go.”
I haven’t been on a vacation with my husband since I was pregnant with my third child. (And, really, is it a vacation when you’re pregnant?) Before that, the last trip-for-the-sole-purpose-of-fun we took was before we had children, so over a decade ago. Yes, perhaps it was time.
Here’s what I learned:
We need to take more vacations. Other cultures do this well. (Most of France takes the entire month of August off, for goodness’ sake.) These days in America, the idea of taking a vacation is equated with weakness, with lack of ambition or drive. We value work production over memory production; we're expected to answer calls and emails within minutes. I know people who have lost clients because they couldn't take a call while in the middle of a funeral. A funeral. Twenty years ago, when our parents took a vacation, they were totally off the grid. Now due to technology, you have to really work to be unplugged. A few years ago, Cadillac ran an ad in the Super Bowl glorifying this kind of drive. I think it was supposed to make me feel good about the American work ethic, but instead — I’m just going to say it — I thought that guy was super-douchey and the whole thing was nuts, (As my dad has told me, “No one ever writes on their tombstone, ‘Prioritzed work.’”) because …
When you’re rested, you get more done. I took a long nap on the plane, got off, ready to roll, slept well that night, took a nap the next day, and promptly wrote a book that had been rattling around in my head for at least two years. (It was a short book, but —Hey! — a book is a book.) You have to have the mental space to be able to create, to breathe, to reconnect with who you are and what you do. There's no way to do that when you're stretched all the time.
Fun is good. To quote Elle Woods, “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.” Well, my husband is safe. The two of us were in full endorphin-production mode on this trip. For one thing, we walked all day every day, uphill and down, so we got some exercise endorphins, BUT I’m talking about fun adventure endorphins. When is the last time you did something unexpected with your spouse? When is the last time you got the giggles over something ridiculous? When is the last time that the two of you went somewhere that made you both get misty-eyed with beauty? These are the kinds of things that are easy to miss when you’re in the everyday minutia of playing chauffeur, short-order cook, and maid at home (not to mention unofficial counselor/taskmaster at work). And they’re the kinds of things that I would argue are essential for keeping the humor and joy in a relationship. In the past week, we got caught in the rain in Siena and ducked into a chapel (possibly interrupting a documentary film shoot), made ridiculous gargoyle faces at each other from the top of Notre Dame, and felt a deep human connection at the Wall of I Love You in Montmartre, watching people from all over the world react with joy at finding their native language on the wall. At the end of every day, I want to be able to say, “I still choose you,” and mean it. That’s easier to do when you keep having fun together.
Traveling gives you appreciation for the human experience. Every once in a while, you’ll be in a situation, surrounded by people from all over the world, all experiencing the same thing at the same time, and it’s glorious! There will come a moment when something highly anticipated finally happens and everyone cheers. And, in that moment, it’s not you (singular: the American) next to the Columbian and the Swede, it’s you (plural: the humans) all together. It’s hard to find those experiences by staying in your bubble. You have to venture out and find people who look and sound different from you to discover that your hearts feel the same. In my case, my husband and I sat on the grass of the Parc du Mars at sunset, waiting for the Eiffel Tower to sparkle with a thousand lights. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. It’s not like there’s a countdown as on New Year’s Eve. You’re just sitting there with many, many other people all waiting for the same thing, all having your own individual experiences. But then — voilà! — suddenly, the lights are shimmering in the sunset and everyone stops mid-sentence to gasp and then cheer. And you’re all one people having the same delightful experience.
Always check off the bucket list when you can. Fun fact about me: I’m not a bike person. There’s probably a whole post that I could write about that, but suffice it to say and I don’t ride a bike by choice and I don’t see that changing in the near future. Let me also say that I get slightly anxious in crowds since my days in NYC. I don’t know if it’s a 9/11 holdover or a result of feeling nearly swept away by the crowd at midnight on New Year's Eve in Times Square, but I generally try to avoid crowds these days. However, we found ourselves just outside of the Louvre, meters away from the Champs-Élysées, where hundreds (probably thousands) were waiting with great anticipation for the Tour de France to arrive for the final eight-lap leg of the race. I will say that my initial impulse was to leave quickly, get to a Metro stop and get as far away as I could. Then, a little voice said, “How often do you get the chance to see this? People have traveled here just for this moment! And you’re going to go try to find dinner instead? What’s wrong with you?” Touché, inner voice. So, we stayed. And I’m SO glad we did! In about half an hour from when we got there, the leaders came rolling in. In their initial ride into the last leg, they were cruising, but, as the laps went by, the speed and intensity was crackling in the air. By the time they came by for the eighth and final lap, the crowd was going crazy. I’ve never been more interested in cycling in my whole life! I get it now! I get why this would be on someone’s bucket list. And to think that I almost let it pass me by! What a great reminder to keep your eyes — and your heart — open to new experiences!
So, that's Part I of what I did on my summer vacation. I'm already starting to daydream about the next trip. Fingers crossed that it won't be another decade from now! Bon voyage!