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On the existential angst of family vacations
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When I was 19, I ended up on a vacation in Spain with my parents. I actually have no idea how this happened and I realize how obnoxious and privileged this sounds, but that’s how my memory of it goes. My father had a neurological conference (?), they were visiting old friends in Alicante (?). I was just done with my sophomore year of college, with plans to be in Italy in June on some sort of Eurorail adventure with a friend (so I guess I already had a plane ticket?) and would then spend the second half of the summer working at a daycare back in Montreal. I don’t know what I was really meant to be doing when I wasn’t in Spain on my parents’ romantic getaway, but apparently nothing important?
The point of this whole embarrassing tale is that it was an utter disaster. Although it had seemed like a good idea (a college kid who actually wants to spend time with her parents!), I hated being with my parents, I hated everything they wanted to do — every museum, every meal, every long walk, they were not having the teenage trip of my dreams, alas — and I complained extravagantly at every single turn. (I am so ashamed of this now, so sorry, Mom and Dad!) The height of the terribleness was when I wandered off for a walk at night with some random Spanish guy I’d just met in some city with impossibly labyrinth-like roads I’d never be able to navigate on my own (not that I even knew the name of our hotel) and returned to find that my parents had…called the police.
Anyway. It was bad bad bad. So what happened next? They kicked me off the trip. My French Godfather lived (still lives) in Paris and they sent me to him. Good riddance, ungrateful adult-child! I got on an overnight train alone and spent three weeks in his smoky one-bedroom apartment in the 13th arrondissement and we were all better off. During the day, André would go to work and I’d make myself a baguette with pâté or a jambon beurre and head out with my 35mm camera and a plastic map and some Métro tickets and sort of wander the city and have my Québécois French be made fun of by the Parisians. At night, he’d make dinner and smoke cigarette after cigarette and we’d talk and laugh and at some point we’d go to sleep.
Twelve years later, I returned to Paris to heal my back and spent two months living with André in yet another apartment, and this, too, I loved — going to the Marché d’Aligre every morning for strawberries and croissants and a ficelle and more pâté, going to the movies or to Monoprix for milk or jam, riding the Métro without too much confusion, learning the rituals of standing when the train gets too full; the regular goings-on of living in a particular place. This is the kind of travel I really relish: settling in, feigning real life.
It was only on our family trip to Paris last week that I realised that this particular city is a really lovely place to live and sort of vaguely — yes, I’ll say it — hostile to tourists? Because: try finding a bathroom when you are wandering around all day, exhausted, boiling, everyone in the family on the edge? Forget it. Buy a coffee first! Get inside a museum! Then you can use les toilettes!
Our recent family trip had the tiniest whiff of that vacation in Spain with my own parents. I say tiniest because my kid is a preteen, not 19, but she’s certainly at the age when being with her parents 24/7 is not how she’d necessarily choose to spend her time and navigating a big city like Paris by foot is tiring for anyone. In a move that is always bound to fail, I desperately wanted to make everyone happy 100% of the time (hahahahahahah), which amounted, predictably, to moments of glee and other moments of epic whining, a lot of spats on corners and a few tears. And a very strong attempt on my part to not yell, “We are in PARIS! STOP FUCKING COMPLAINING! Everyone BE NICE!”
I have so much trouble letting vacations (or as every parent knows, trips) be what they are — a whole complex mix of things, just like all other days: good, bad, frustrating, lonely, magical, tiring. Moments of bliss, moments of crushing disappointment. I was talking about this with a friend here in Cambridge and she told me about taking her children to Paris and sending another friend a photo of her toddler having a tantrum on a Parisian sidewalk. I told her about a marital spat and she said, “It’s not a vacation without a huge marital fight.”
When I travel with my husband I am always flooded with awe and adoration for his competence and steadiness. Not a moment goes by on a trip with him when I don’t feel safe, which, for me, is huge. A train is cancelled? He’s the person I want by my side because he doesn’t panic and finds a workaround. He will never lose the passports or hotel keys, he can carry anything heavy, he doesn’t mind taking the seat next to the stranger. He is game for anything. And there are moments when we want to throttle each other because — marriage. Same for my daughter: she climbed the Eiffel Tower! And Sacre Coeur! In major heat! She stood on train after train! And also: I simply could not handle one more eye roll about The Walking, one more “but how far it is?”, one more “I hate Paris!” I’m absolutely certain they both wanted to kill me, too, for so many things, but especially my general air of disappointment that everything wasn’t perfect, so I know I’m very much on the hook.
I am cursed with an ever-present existential angst that I’m sure so many of you share, but sometimes it gets so bad that I start to question every single thing. We finally got back to Cambridge after an eight-hour journey (bless the British rail strikes) and the kid was so happy to just run out into the yard with her friends and I thought, Did we really need to spend all that money to go on that trip? What was that all FOR? Was there something in Paris we really needed to see/do/experience that we couldn’t do here?
I mean, it’s an idiotic question because, of course, the very reason we went to Paris was because we couldn’t do any of the things we did there elsewhere — everything from eating those phenomenal baguettes to jumping on the trampoline in the Jardin des Tuileries to riding the carousel a million times to seeing my beloved Godfather again and even just drinking a Kir Cassis alone during one 5 à 7 and getting vaguely buzzed and having a ridiculous conversation with the bartender. What a joy and a gift to bring our daughter to Paris — the very place my husband/then-boyfriend and I first talked about having a baby together.
And yet. I still ask myself the question because all I ever want out of a vacation is family closeness, family happiness, and those things can never ever be guaranteed, can they? As anyone cursed with this particular problem knows, the pressure to make everyone Close and Happy makes it impossible for anyone to authentically experience those very things.
Perhaps the answer to much of this existential angst is to travel with another family because when conflicts arise, you can invariably blame it on them! And then have a common enemy (my friend Kathleen tells me this is to key to a happy marriage)! I jest — but only slightly? I do think it relieves the pressure on a family of three to be everything to each other after many months of, largely, being everything to each other.
Or perhaps the lesson is that Lauryn Hill was right all along, that everything is everything. Perhaps vacations are no different than every other part of life, and maybe I could hold on a little less tightly to all of it, the joy and the anger, the bliss and the disappointment, the epic expectations and the epic realness. Holding it all in a loose, loose palm.
THAT SAID If you do bring your kids to Paris, I can enthusiastically recommend: Philharmonie des Enfants was a massive hit with all of us; such a fun, interact exhibit. Jumping on the trampoline at the Jardin des Tuileries also big success (got this tip from Cup of Jo). Amorino had the best ice cream (sorry, better than Berthillon). The carousel at Sacre Coeur also a hit (incredible views from the top; counting the stairs helped!). Our kid got a haircut in Paris! A hilarious and wonderful activity and definitely her highlight (we walked into a cheap-looking place and 30 minutes later, she’d cut off 6 inches!). We ate delicious falafel at Chez Hanna (my friend Caroline told me it’s better than L’as).
Come join us for Summer School!!!! It’s going to be THE BEST. And if you’re already signed up, bring a friend along!
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