A summer holiday is potentially much more than an idle luxury: going abroad or to a distant part of your own country is a chance to detach yourself from routine life and concerns, all the better to consider them afresh. And holiday sights, sounds and encounters inspire thoughts of other possibilities, other ways of living.
The writer Amit Chaudhuri, brought up in Bombay, spent childhood holidays in the city that gave its name to his 2011 memoir-cum-cultural history, Calcutta. In it, he suggests that part of any holiday’s enchantment lies in the non-engagement with ordinary life’s ‘rules of narrative’:
“It’s a period of time that’s static, unmoving, without the on-and-on progression that our lives generally have – but a period, nevertheless, in which a transformation occurs.”
I find that ‘non-engagement’ can happen when I’m doing the simplest thing, like eating breakfast in a café in France. The familiar – eating breakfast – becomes foreign because we’re in a foreign place.
This idea of the transformational holiday got me thinking about what we actually do en vacances, and how it can affect changes in our minds deeper and more lasting than any sun tan.
It seems fairly clear to me that when we do varied, even active things, it’s not with any sense of growth or progression. We relax on sun loungers, we stimulate our minds in art galleries, we pull on trainers or walking boots to play tennis or hike; we get our adrenalin rushes by whitewater rafting, we speak to locals in an unaccustomed tongue, and try new foods. By the end, it’s been a hotch-potch of experiences, with no unifying purpose, yet we come back home convinced (and perhaps we’re right) that our lives will from thenceforth be different. We’ve had a Pauline conversion on our way to Baggage Reclaim at Gatwick: we’ve seen another way of living, and things will never be the same again – for a while, at least.
But then, obedient to the demands of the workplace, we become caught up in progress of a more conventional, urgent and unthinking kind: sustaining the momentum of life, earning money, and acquiring professional skills, knowledge and contacts.