Holiday Presence

A vacation is having nothing to do and all day to do it in. ~Robert Orben

Our oven is on its last legs. Two nights ago, it sighed warm breath over a pizza that took thirty five minutes to cook. I looked at my husband. He looked at me and we knew we had to tell the kids.

After we’d eaten, we asked them how they’d feel about not going away anywhere on holiday this year. We’d both accepted that it isn’t just the oven that needs replaced; two of the gas rings don’t work properly, some of our kitchen cabinets are beyond repair and some of the countertops are so old, they’re crumbling at the edges. We have maintenance work to do throughout the whole house.

I was poised, ready to explain to the kids that in the current economic climate, we may have to move house and ours needs to be in good repair – not just cosy and family friendly. We were ready to console them, to suggest a short break in October, day trips and lots of alternative plans and lists of exciting things to do. We waited.

My heart ached at the thought of our loved ones over in Greece, of the long conversations we have in the cooler evening air on their terraces and verandahs overlooking the sea. How they spoil the kids with gifts and favourite meals and ice creams while shaking their heads in disbelief at how much they’ve grown.

I thought of the long days we spend on the beach, laughing, playing simple ball games, dripping sea-wet hair onto magazines, puzzle books and holiday paperbacks, lying on beach towels and sandy loungers, smelling of suntan cream and summer.

I thought of reassuring rituals, quiet family times alone on jasmine scented balconies, playing Yahtzee and card games and strolling along the bustling seafront in the evening, choosing which noisy laughter-filled taverna to have a meal in. I longed for a table beneath the stars, for bouzouki music and endless salads and village bread, and plate upon plate of mezedhes – tzatziki, wrinkled olives, aubergine and courgette fritters, tangy feta cheese and giant beans baked in a tomato, olive oil and herb sauce – all washed down with retsina from the barrel out back.

My teenage daughter responded first. “You know,” she said, “I’d love to just chill out at home for a change. I’m really tired.” My son agreed, told us how he longed to just sleep until he woke, with no thoughts of alarm clocks, school or after-school hobbies. They both went on to explain that they enjoy everything they do at school, but are bone-weary, tired of timetables and homework.

Stunned – relieved – I asked them if they’d miss Greece, swimming every day, eating out…

“I won’t miss airports,” said my son. “Or mosquitos,” said my daughter, “…or having to get up early to swim because we can’t go outside at mid-day when it’s too hot.”

My husband and I sat there, listening, as they made the perfect case for an at-home holiday, a staycation, talking of how they loved the idea of a few weeks on holiday here, savouring the things they have little time for during a busy school year; the books they wanted to catch up on, the songs my daughter planned to learn on her guitar and all the sleeping late they were longing to do in the damp, cool Scottish mornings.

“If it’s sunny,” said my son, looking at me, knowing what I love most about holidays, “we can drive to a Scottish beach. The waves sound the same.”

“We can go to Edinburgh or Glasgow,“ said my daughter, who, like me, loves bustling crowds of foreigners as much as serenity and silence “We can pretend to be tourists, sit in cafés, go to galleries…”

I suddenly thought how much fun it would be to capture Edinburgh on camera, to send postcards of hills and lochs and castles to my friends abroad.

I thought how my daughter could play her guitar every day and my son could play football outside for as long as he liked without me worrying about sunstroke or dehydration.

I thought of all the unread books lying around waiting to be read, books I could enjoy after a day’s gardening or decorating, or on a Scottish beach, when I wasn’t gathering bits of driftwood or shells.

I thought how good it would be to get the house fixed, to get rid of all the tolerations and little jobs we’d been putting off.  To gut the attic and create a cosy new kitchen. To have months and years of feeling ‘clean and clear’ for the price of a holiday in the sun.

I hadn’t realised we’d been focusing so much on the benefits of an annual holiday that we’d never given the kids the option of staying at home, had never encouraged them to talk about what they don’t like about going away. I hadn’t realised how much those few weeks in Greece keep me anchored in the past and how many weeks of my life I dream away, longing for a pre-arranged change of scene.

A change of scene begins with a change of thoughts. We don’t always need new vistas; sometimes it’s enough to see what we already have with new eyes and be grateful. If we can’t be happy where we are, with what we have, how can we ever be truly happy somewhere else?

The next night, my husband came back from the supermarket carrying a bottle of retsina and the brand of ice cream the kids eat on holiday. “May as well start early,” he smiled.

(This was written as a guest post for Mary Jaksch at Goodlife Zen, where it appeared as Staycation: How far Away is Happiness?)