At my college the chaplain, who did double duty as the rector of the parish that used the college’s chapel, with some regularity had faculty members, and even the college’s psychologist, give guest sermons or addresses at the principal Sunday service. These addresses were usually interesting and often more orthodox than the priest’s offerings. The psychologist, for example, who I guess was a Freudian (it was the mid-1970s), told us that the doctrine of original sin and a Freudian understanding of humanity had some significant affinities, one of which was a shared skepticism about human perfectibility. The local rabbi and religion professor, Eugen Kullman – a brilliant lecturer and a teacher heavy with Mitteleuropäisch learning – was perhaps the best of all.
I vividly recall hearing one such guest sermon from a distinguished Professor of English literature, Gerrit Roelofs. I do not recall Mr. Roelofs’s main point, which was probably religious and probably sound. What I remember is his denunciation of several then current abuses of the language. For one thing Roelofs ridiculed the common use of ‘Wow!’. Roelofs’s scornful comment, ending with an elongated version of the final word: ‘I had much rather hear someone bleat, “Baaa-aaa-aaa!” than say, “Woooowwww!”’
Less obvious was Roelofs’s objection to the word ‘vacation’. To be ‘vacant’ is to be empty, void, unoccupied. Roelofs hoped that most of our undergraduates did not indulge in vacancy, though on his view the ‘Wow’-users might be suspected of such inclinations. Nonetheless, Roelofs hoped that most people truly would enjoy ‘holidays’. I was persuaded, adjusted my vocabulary, and ever since then have gone on holidays, not vacations. Just as I wear trousers, not pants.
No doubt there are ‘vacations’: times when one mostly just wants to rest, vegetate, nap, do as little as possible. The recent portmanteau, ‘staycation’, perhaps captures the spirit of that preference. The purpose of the vacation, literally understood, is not to do something or to go somewhere or to experience something new, but to recharge one’s energy by not doing much, by not experiencing anything new, and, in the case of a ‘staycation’, by not even travelling.
In truth, sometimes we need both vacations and holidays or need one more than the other. Some people are always on the go, full of energy, restless, ill at ease if not in motion or with other people. Some people, in Pascal’s phrase, cannot sit quietly in their room alone. Some people are inclined more to café culture or to a quiet time at the beach or in the mountains: to go to a beautiful place, to enjoy the sun or the vista, to sit at a table with a coffee or glass of wine, and to enjoy the present experience of the place. Usually, most people want elements of both these tendencies, with the particular mix depending on the difficulty of travel, cost, the time available, the degree of immediately previous activity and tiredness, and the personality of the individual.
There are, then people who enjoy active travel and people who enjoy restful breaks. There are other bifurcations. There are people who like to be alone and people who hate solitude. People inclined to hiking, camping, kayaking, biking, and mountain climbing in theory might be distinguished from people inclined to cathedrals, museums, cafés, and fine meals. That bifurcation can be part of the rest vs. activity distinction, but it might be something else: differing preferences for nature, on the one hand, and for the artefacts of civilization and history, on the other.
Another distinction I notice in travel (but also in life more generally) is between people content to be in the present and those who seem – well, not content in the present. Photography is one indication of the distinction. There are those who on holiday always are photographing everything. Such folk are documenting the experience, with an eye perhaps towards its future recollection and its social media presentation.[i]
The advent of digital – that is, virtually free – photography has heightened this tendency. Of course, a student of architecture or an anthropologist travelling in part for professional reasons will take many, many photographs. I often travel with a couple with a deep professional interest in historic preservation. I expect photography as part of the package – and perhaps as necessary for certain travel allowances or tax deductions. For the average traveler, however, constant photographing seems to interrupt the present, lived experience for a future, recollected, ‘curated’, or imagined experience. Something that does not and may never exist replaces that which actually does exist.
The ‘smart phone’ plague has baleful effects in addition to encouraging the shutterbugs. One can see people by the Florida pool, on the tropical beach, on the mountain trail, eating with friends, or at the café table in a beautiful European or South American plaza staring at screens. Actual, present, even captivating beauty and extraordinary interest and humane society are put aside for what is probably quotidian and humdrum.
We tend to fall into habits in regard to our preferred modes of and purposes for travel. But in truth mostly we can choose how to approach these matters. Am I traveling to rest, to re-collect myself, to be with friends, or for some other purpose? Do I seek to enjoy the travel or to prepare to present or experience the travel second-hand in the future or on social media? Answers differ, often quite legitimately. But at least we should think about the questions.
[i] A generation ago social media in their current form did not exist. But travelers still took slides or photographs with an eye towards sharing them later with friends after the holiday.