What comes in between work and play?
Vacation is a wonderful thing.
It gives you an opportunity to leave your life behind for a little while and explore a new place or just relax in front of a good view. It gives you an excuse to put down your phone, leave work emails for a few weeks, and just unwind.
It’s blissful, that: Forgetting life back home. All those emails you meant to send and the never-ending list of tasks you were supposed to finish become laughably small when there’s a mountain of tapas in front of you or a Gaudí cathedral ceiling playing mind-blowing games with natural light.
Only, you have to get to that bliss in the first place.
When vacation begins, you’re still thinking about home. Work is still in your mind. It’s reeling and you can’t imagine taking a moment away from it. But then, slowly, day after day, you sink deeper into this different place, this other way of living, until your email notifications go unnoticed, you find yourself relying on your ‘out-of-office’, and finally putting thoughts of your daily life behind you.
And that’s when the beauty of vacation blossoms.
The concept of vacations itself is fairly recent. Years ago, the poor worked all week, and the rich played when their fancy struck. With the rise of the industrial revolution, and the expansion of the railways, however, time ruled supreme; a worker’s life was divided into ‘work’, ‘weekends’, and vacations. Of course, there are many who cannot afford to take vacations today or their work doesn’t allow it, and that deserves to be acknowledged. But, what began as a labor benefit turned into a middle-class status symbol, and eventually became a mass phenomenon.
Today, for many (but not all) of us, modern technology has managed to blur these fine lines between work and play. With our plethora of phones, laptops, and tablets, work is a mere phone call away for some. It’s fantastically freeing, but it also means we never rest, not really.
Until, vacation mode strikes.
On a recent vacation to the north of Spain, my husband and I managed to detach from home life. It was interesting to watch the transition in another person, so I’ll use him as my example. At first, guilt over skipping work overwhelmed him, to the point where he called to check in and see if there was anything he could help with. Yes, really.
Then, after we drove through la Rioja region and up to gorgeous San Sebastian, he began unwinding. He didn’t use his phone often, he wasn’t talking about work much, and then finally, he wasn’t talking about it at all.
Over a small bocadillo dripping in sardines and olive oil I asked him if he’d heard from work. There had been an important meeting he had been anxious about missing, but, there in the bar, he just looked at me and shrugged — and then ordered a caña of cerveza.
That marked his official moment of letting go.
Letting go is tough when we are all interconnected. That’s why, even when we’re bombarded with new experiences, it still takes time to settle into vacation (or rather, out of non-vacation).
For many people, the culprit is social media. The pressure to post that perfect picture of a sunset over the Spanish Pyrenees can often eclipse the joy of actually being in Spain. Do I look relaxed enough, you wonder, does this picture capture enough of my inner bliss? Sometimes, we can be so caught up by needing to look Instagram-worthy that we miss out on what we really came on vacation for.
On the flip side, it’s not a crime to want to share what you’re feeling with the world. Sometimes, it’s wonderful to share the excitement of something new or beautiful with people you care about. And it’s incredible to see the real-time responses come in—almost as if those friends and family members are there with you.
Maybe there’s a way to balance that feeling of letting go and hanging on. I learned to keep my phone in my pocket until I squeezed sufficient personal joy out of a moment and could no longer resist the urge to share. Maybe that’s a strategy: Just enjoy your vacation. Try to keep your phone in your pocket as long as you can, count five things you can feel or hear around you without capturing them for social media, and experience the realness of the place for yourself and yourself alone. Then, take a selfie if you must, but by then, you’ll have the memory of the experience, which is far more valuable.
The trip to Spain was taken with old friends who had been travelling for a year. Having finished a stint in South America, they were bouncing around southern Europe with little luggage and a lot of fascinating stories, and plans for the months ahead.
But we didn’t just talk. We shared new memories over sunsets and bottles of wine. We soaked in the food and culture of Barcelona and discovered a casual mountain life in ski-town Jaca. I started to sink into the vacation, never wondering what going home would be like.
And then, we began to near the end.
We started to talk about things that didn’t have to do with our vacation: who had the apartment key and how the dogsitter was doing. These changes were so small and subtle that it was easy enough to still pretend they weren’t happening. We could still switch them off and sink deeply into vacation mode without thinking about anything too pressing for too long. But home was there, waiting for us. It was hovering.
But then, thankfully, the plane ride was a buffer. Both of us had spent four of the twelve hours on the way to Spain stressing about work, but on the way home, he watched movies and I listened to an entire audiobook on 1.5 speed. It was sheer indulgence.
And then, of course, we arrived home.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with home, exactly. It’s more that the idea of home — where work and decisions and responsibilities seem to peck at you as if you were in some sort of Hitchcock movie on loop — is just so different than, well, your vacation in sunny Spain.
The dog suddenly seems more hyper and you’re regretting telling the dogsitter that, fine, she can let her up on the furniture because now you can see the result of your carefree vacation-mind decision: There’s dog hair absolutely everywhere.
There’s a mountain of laundry to get done and you’ve told a friend you’d get together with them tonight at your place (tonight?), so you’re frantically cleaning, doing laundry, getting takeout that everyone likes, and trying not to pass out from exhaustion.
And then suddenly it’s Monday, and it’s time to work. My husband, bless him, jumped right back in like a champ. He was out of bed at 6 to go for a run with the dog — highly unprecedented in our house, mind you. Even though he had been up since four thanks to the jet lag, it was still impressive.
We parted early and set to our daily tasks. I don’t know what happened all day for him, but for me, I can say it was a struggle. I was a mess. I tried, I really tried to stay motivated, but the computer was a magnet flipped the other way around. I was being repelled. I did everything else instead. I did some yoga. (I may or may not have fallen asleep during Savasana.) I walked the dog in the rain (of course there was rain). I went to the grocery store (god, I hate the grocery store). And I moved through it all slowly, as if I would never recover from this post-vacation hangover.
But, here’s the strange thing. I love what I do. I love writing. When I’m in the zone, it’s the absolute best. I love waking up in the morning thinking, yes, I get to write today. I have the best job.
Work, even the best work, even the work that makes you smile as soon as you roll over in bed first thing in the morning, is still not — vacation. I don’t care if you’re a bestselling novelist, a blissed-out yoga instructor, or Beyoncé: work is not a vacation. They’re not the same thing.
It’s simple math, really. Work is what we do to make money. Vacation is what we do to spend it.
And so, when making money becomes the priority, rather than spending it, the world looks a little more stressful and out to get you. This, I think, is why people say they need a vacation from their vacation. It’s not vacation itself (don’t blame vacation!). It’s the chaos of our regular life, our home, that puts a little cloud over our heads. Thankfully, it only lasts for a little while until we start to see the good parts about being home: our own bed, our own bathroom, our dog’s hilarious welcome-home-now-scratch-my-butt move, Netflix, cooking.
There’s so much more to appreciate about home, and so I wonder — if coming home from vacation is a blanket of clouds, could that moment you start to appreciate home for what it is be the silver lining? Is that even a good metaphor? I’m not sure.
All I know is that there’s an adjustment period between vacation (i.e. discovering new places) and home (i.e. doing the same things over and over again). That adjustment period, as painful as it may be, is also part of life.
And, come on, the pain of it isn’t nearly enough to stop you from booking your next vacation, is it? So what are you complaining about, really?