The holidays are upon us. That means… well, what does it mean, nowadays? In my part of the world, it means that quiet will give way to hordes of overenthusiastic Germans, harassed Gautengers, lobster-red Brits fortifying themselves against the sun with pinotage rosé, and the generally febrile mood of people eager to eke out as much leisure as they can fit into the long days of summer.
There’s an argument to be made for simply staying where you are. Reading a Jeffrey Archer in the garden with a Meerlust Chardonnay to hand is far cheaper than paying an airline a fortune to be nice to you just so you can go and sit on a crowded beach and have your beach read spoiled by someone bluetoothing their music taste to the world.
In the distant past, holidays were such a novelty that Cliff Richard sang about them (“No more worries for me or you, for a week or two…”). Back in the mid-century, organised leisure emerged as something we could all do to reward ourselves, a break from work when we pursued happiness in ways that reinvigorated us and made us feel fulfilled before recommitting ourselves to the work effort.
The result of this is that, even today, with all the world ablaze, we desperately desire the escape: we work towards it all year long, craftily strategising what we can sacrifice now to ensure an extra week in the sunshine.
If that all sounds a bit kraft durch freude, it’s because the injunction to go off and enjoy yourself is, historically speaking, among the mechanisms by which rebellious workforces were brought under control in the early 20th century. The workers of the world can’t unite if they’re using their precious free time to pursue pleasure in Stillbaai or on the Algarve. We’re explicitly told that going off to find inner peace over a glass of retsina will cure us of the yearlong malaise engendered by the routine of work. We want to believe in the regenerative power of getting away from it all, which is why Eat, Pray, Love and its ilk have proven so popular.
As with most things in life, we can blame our parents for this. The child who watches their parents slog away, growing bent with years and embittered by untaken leave, will become the adult who straps a kayak to their Ford Raptor at every opportunity. Everything you think you know about what makes for a good holiday is probably a fiction you’ve inherited. Our rituals help with the sale of Thule roof boxes and risibly printed shirts and airport novels you’ll be too ashamed to actually take to the beach. All you really need for a holiday is yourself, some people you can stand to be around (not too many, or it becomes work), and some time away from the everyday.
This sounds deceptively simple but, in reality, work has encroached so completely on every aspect of our lives that the boundaries are a blur. Even I, who effectively reads books for a living, have gotten into the terrible habit of trailing my laptop around like a technological ball and chain, just in case. In case of what? I’m not sure. But if I were to leave my work instrument behind, I fear that, at some point, I’d be struck by some brief ray of creative genius, only to find I had nothing but a dying phone, a pencil stub, and a used boarding pass.
The child who watches their parents slog away, growing bent with years and embittered by untaken leave, will become the adult who straps a kayak to their Ford Raptor at every opportunity
Once, in touristy Zambia, I had to stumble through the whiffiest fresh-air market I’ve ever seen to find an internet café from which I could file a review I’d forgotten to send to my editor before I left. Someone I know has just returned from visiting Svalbard, which is a bit out of the way but certainly worth the going. He saw a polar bear or two and the brutalist concrete shed where they keep a supply of the world’s most important seeds. He told me this with an air of faint disappointment settling over him. Nothing is truly fantastic when you’re describing it afterwards as a series of anecdotes. You need to be there. The snapshots he showed me weren’t of Svalbard: they were of someone’s Svalbard holiday, which isn’t the same thing at all. I made the obliging polite noises, but I think we both knew that holidays, like bread, are best enjoyed in the moment, rather than saved for later.
I know that my own phone is full of pictures I took in fetid South Carolina or snowy Munich or while fending off heatstroke at the Victoria Falls that I have no intention of looking at again. Sure, when I took the time to compose them, I fancied myself a budding Ansel Adams. But they haven’t yet devised a phone camera that can intuitively understand and enhance the magic and wonder you’ll want to convey when performing a show & tell for your friends and family two weeks after you get home.
This isn’t to suggest that I’m a holiday grinch by any means. There’s something quite regenerative in being among fellow travellers, all of you hurling yourselves at leisure’s briefly open window. You could be in an airport, wondering about the man with the outsized stuffed animal (a gift for a grandchild, three flights and two buses away in Norway). Or you could be at an Ultra City (ironically named), alarming your bank by putting in a full tank of fuel and wondering how the super-posh family in the Caravelle next door have managed to get a peloton’s worth of bicycles attached to the back of their rolling greenhouse without it falling over.
There’s something about the common endeavour that plucks at the heart strings and affirms our faith in the whole effort.
• From the November edition of Wanted, 2023.