I don't take vacations. But for most people vacation is a necessity, and it is taken for granted.
At least once a year, preferably once each season, people want to vacate their house and go away somewhere far from home. If they can't afford to go far, they go somewhere nearer. Believing vacation to be their right, they don't renounce it willingly. They might put it on hold in dire circumstances, like sickness, poverty, and war. Some might stay home for vacation but they do so with a bad conscience; and in the view of those who believe more firmly in vacationing, that is virtually a sacrilege. People who stay home for vacation are unable to vacate their house; so they try their best to vacate their head and consider it a luxury to sit or lie idly and do little of consequence. Anything productive, including intellectual nourishment, is considered working and not vacationing. Believing vacation to be a right, people feel cheated unless a vacation is a paid vacation. They expect to be paid for the days doing nothing whatever they get paid for working on other days, workdays. If the vacation is unpaid, it is no more than an imposed temporary unemployment.
Vacation is a break from work. It is built on the notion that working is onus, and working without a break is overly strenuous and is therefore counterproductive or else unhealthy. Refusing a vacation, therefore, verges on insanity. That's crazy, people will tell you; or, rather, they tell me. Even God rested on the seventh day after six days of work, although, given His omnipotence, it shouldn't have been particularly taxing. Sunday (or a misplaced Sabbath) is obviously an institution of Judeo-Christian origin, however natural and normal it may seem to most of us today, even to non-Jews and non-Christians. It is an honorable ritual, a convenient way to mark out the days, and for those who are not spiritually oriented a legitimate day for sleeping late idling the whole day. But we easily forget that this is no universal law. There are cultures with calendars that do not recognize Sunday as a day of weekly rest. So, as one day each week is institutionally set aside for repose, several days are expected to be similarly set aside for a break from work each year or season.
Of course, we need rest after a stretch of work within a day, a week, or a season. But why can't we rest when we are tired and need a rest without waiting for Sunday or without being compelled to rest just because it's Sunday. In rustic life before the Industrial Revolution, rest from work occurred according to the agrarian cycle of work. Peasants rested after planting, for example, and after harvesting; and there were religious feasts, like the carnival and the various holy days and church fairs or kermess in the liturgical calendar. The long stretch of wintertime was no rest time for peasants; they busied themselves making handmade articles for their own use or for sale.
Industrialized cities, which introduced wages, created a need for the city workers to flee the overcrowded city. In search of nature and fresh air, they went hiking and picnicking. For these, they would go out to the country, as we are familiar from various 19th century literary sources and as is memorably realized in Jean Renoir's Une partie de campagne (A Day in the Country, 1936, released 1946). In search of fresh air city folks also went to the shores or mountains; and they always came home refreshed, as they believed, and exhausted, as they painfully realized.
It is the perpetual irony of vacationing that the vacationers do more work than usual planning and realizing their vacation trips and, so, they return home, not rested, but worn out. If they didn't come home exhausted, they still yearn for their home all the time while travelling away from home just because unfamiliar places are so different from everything they are familiar and comfortable with at home. Alien scenes disorient them and therefore wear them out. If they don't come home exhausted, they find themselves relieved to be home. "Ah, it's so good to be home," they say. Tourists notoriously look for and find in the new scenes they encounter on their travel something analogous to the scenes at home; they exclaim when they recognize even a minutest item of recognition: "Look at that; we have a church back home with a dome just like that." Why do vacationers bother to go on vacation, anyway? Travelling is educational, I'm sure. If vacation is a need, it is more like psychological than physical, a need to have a break from the familiar. So, people should not expected to get a good rest vacationing. But they do.
I don't take vacations, and I have no sympathy with exhausted vacationers. But, then, they think I am a miseable wretch, incapable of enjoying holidays, or at best a pathetic eccentric. I must agree I don't particularly enjoy holidays but that is because I have always enjoyed day to day over my working years and never felt anything particular to rejoice about, say, Sunday, just because the day is Sunday. I admit that, as a college professor, I was always lucky to have a more flexible weekly schedule that 9-to-5 office workers don't, that allowed me time during the week, without waiting for the weekend, to engage myself in activities other than the school work. Work and play were never quite disengaged in my life.
So, I am also perversely averse to coffee breaks, which are miniature vacations that occur within a day's stretch. I learned to take coffee breaks, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, while in college, especially while working half-time drafting in an office of architects and engineers. Promptly at 10:00 in the morning and at 3:00 in the afternoon, my co-workers would drop everything and go out to have a break for fifteen minutes or longer. They drink insipid diner cofee and socialize. They would not let me stay in the office and continue working; that would be against the code of normalcy. If I insisted and managed to stay, I would be alone in the large drafting room, or often alone with an old Russian, an immigrant, whom they let alone accepting him as an eccentric. After college, on my own, I never developed a habit for coffee breaks, again, except when it was too impolite to refuse an invitation or when I happened to have a craving for a cup of coffee, insipid or not. I have always felt the same resistance to coffee breaks as to Sundays and vacations.
In my childhood, I had two memorable summer vacations in the mountains, one summer before the outbreak of World War II, and another the summer after. The family rented a small cottage for one month, the length of the summer holidays in the Japanese school system. But then bombing started. The life during the war made survival a continuous work that did not admit any break. There was hardly any playtime for children either; there were chores to do. We evacuated out of the city to avoid the air raids and lived deep in the mountains, a summertime vacationland, which was safe but left us starved. Food shortage did not change for a good number of years after the war. I was surely fortunate to have had the memory of two vacationing summers. But I grew up without really acquiring the good habit of vacationing. Having arrived in this country, I experienced a few vacation trips, often with kindly families who wanted me to have a good time; but I never felt comfortable vacationing. In consequence, I spent my mature years without ever taking off for a vacation voluntarily even during holiday seasons. I wouldn't be surprised if my perverse sentiment regarding vacations is not shared to some degree by first-generation immigrants who came to this country to escape poverty back home.
During my teaching years, I traveled extensively. But they were invariably work trips. I traveled to attend a professional meeting, to read a paper, to give a lecture, organize a conference, or to carry on a research and fieldwork. These trips were all thoroughly enjoyable, enjoyable enough to qualify as vacation trips, even though they were business trips. Visiting historic sites and museums is a tourist activity; but for an art historian it was work and I made the activity intense enough to be fully work in nature, a sort of self-defined study workshop. Traveling on foundation grants, I had to justify the travels as work, of course. If in my youth I failed to acquire a habit of vacationing, professional travels in my working years inculcated in me the habit of making vacation trips into intensive workshops even when I was paying for them out of my own pocket. Needless to say, I generally travel to places where there are artistic monuments, predominantly cities, and, so far, never to mountains and shores where one is expected to lay back and be recreative (rather than creative).
So, I don't take vacations and I never really did. I am neither proud of this fact nor sorry for myself. I only contend that vacation is an acquired taste no less than city living, no less than working.
T. Kaori Kitao, 09.28.03