Etymology: French vacacion “vacancy, vacant position” (14c.) and directly from Latin vacationem (nominative vacatio) “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty, immunity earned by service,” noun of state from past participle stem of vacare “be empty, free, or at leisure ...”
Until I was in my 40s, all of my vacations ranged from one long weekend, or as long as two weeks. They always seemed to have felt relaxing, enjoyable and refreshing. In my mind, they accomplished the important purpose of giving me (and my family) valuable and memorable times together. Each vacation cleared my mind a bit as I usually shed some stress. At the end of it, I usually felt “ready” to dive back into the job, even though I usually stole at least a few minutes each day to check in with the office and make sure all was going well without me. Vacation time was a well deserved “intermission” from the daily grind, a tool to help me sustain it.
During a particularly stressful point in our life, I knew we needed more. We decided on a north east destination, but with no itinerary. We went to our AAA office, bought a stack of Travelers Cheques and secured detailed maps of North America. (GPS or Google Maps didn’t exist then.) I had a list of 1–800 numbers for all of the major hotel chains. We packed up the car and hit the road, driving northeast and exploring until there was no more northeast pavement to drive on.
When we got hungry, we’d ask locals where to find unique culinary delights. When we got curious or were captivated by something, we pulled over and enjoyed it. We talked. We sang. We each spent time lost in our own thoughts. When we got tired, we called to reserve a room for the night at the nearest hotel along the way. We ate our first McLobster Sandwich in Antigonish and darted through the woods to the cliff’s edge at Ingonish’s Middle Head Hiking Trail. We watched for whales from the high elevation at Meat Cove and descended into the belly of a coal mine in Sydney. We plucked fresh lobster from Bra d’Or Lake, boiling them in their native waters. We saw the morning sunrise over the misty highlands of Baddeck, experienced the bites of Black Flies as we golfed, and even got to enjoy Sunday worship lakeside along the Trans-Canada Highway.
I recognized a few key things.
- It took more than a week before the automatic urge to call the office went away.
- Late in the second week, I began to feel a genuine but unfamiliar sense of restfulness and relaxation from the neck up. I was in unfamiliar territory, embracing the fact that I didn’t have to go back to work for two more weeks.
- By the start of week three, the “off duty” flag in my brain was flying high. There was no sense of pressure to squeeze in all the vacation that I could get in. In other words, I wasn’t working at being on vacation.
- By the start of week four, standing in Times Square at midmorning, wondering how to get to the 2nd Avenue Deli, a strange feeling came over me. In retrospect, I was waking up to the world of difference between being ready to get back to work and not wanting to go back to my job.
- Near the end of week four, as we concluded our wandering at a grand chocolate-themed amusement park, the overwhelming emotions might be described as an odd combination of gratification and grieving. Gratified to have been able to vacation that long, I was far less emotionally prepared to return to work, far more ready to continue our wandering. It felt like I had enjoyed a taste of…freedom.
- It took another month to regain a feeling of normalcy on the job. For the first time in my young life, I was at work in deep reflection about the importance of vacation instead of being on a brief vacation worrying about what was going on at work.
It was the first time I’d taken a one-month vacation since elementary school. From junior high school on, my summers were spent in work-study. Thirty days of “leisure, freedom, exemption, a being free from duty” permanently changed my attitude and my life for the better.
Americans are notoriously vacation deprived, scrounging what they can get, or feel safe taking. In stark contrast, others in the world take a more civilized view of ‘holiday.’ “European Union legislation mandates that all 28 member states must by law grant all employees a minimum of 4 weeks of paid vacation. Workers are entitled to 10 days paid annual leave for each complete year of service. Every employee is also entitled to 12 paid public holidays.”
For the first time in my young life, I understood.