It’s that time of year, the time we pack our suitcases and venture out onto the road, into the air or onto the seas for the hallowed family vacation.
We go to see our people, to come face to face with our history, the places that shaped our parents, grandparents and sometimes those before them. We go to better understand our country, or another part of the world. We go seeking adventure, facing fears, trying our hands at something new.
Most of all, though, when we travel with family, we go to strengthen the ties that bind.
Before setting out this year, put a copy of Curtis Gillespie’s Almost There: The Family Vacation, Then and Now in your glove compartment or your carry-on. Better yet, give it a read well before you plan your next family trip. You’ll find yourself laughing aloud (as I did, sitting alone at Pearson International Airport, waiting for a flight) at the sometimes gross hilarity that ensued on his family trips. But you’ll also find yourself thinking about his messages and what they say about you as a parent, and what you hope to get from your family holidays.
Do you know, for example, what kind of traveller you are? A tourist, an anti-tourist, or a post-tourist? Gillespie reaches to French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and the idea that in our state of “hyper-reality,” humans start to use, then actually prefer, representations of reality rather than reality itself, that because our lives are so overwhelming “our experiences can’t help but devolve into mere encounters with simulations of reality … encounters that we end up preferring to reality.”
He’s on to something there. How else do you explain Vegas, choreographed themed experiences, dude ranches and Labadee, Royal Caribbean’s “island”? The tourist doesn’t think to pose this question, the anti-tourist seeks authentic experiences, and the post-tourist has simply given up and is willing to play along with the game.
Which do you want for your family? What kind of memories do you want to create?
This creation of memories is an essential part of why we vacation as a family and, Gillespie writes, these vacations become a “significant aspect of how we create and define our families and ourselves.”
(Who hasn’t had a “eureka” moment of understanding while on holiday, or when distilling and recalling highlights and lowlights of a trip? It wasn’t until a family vacation to the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia, surrounded by dozens of in-laws, that I truly met the man I had married.)
And as we grow as individuals, our family vacations should evolve and change with us. If they don’t, Gillespie suggests, it may be an indicator that the family dynamic is in trouble.
Can a holiday fix that? Gillespie doesn’t think so, and he’s critical of marketing promises that guilt us into believing each successive vacation should be better, more emotionally and/or symbolically significant than the last in the limited family time we have. A truly good vacation, he writes in his trademark humorous style, isn’t one that creates a “‘happy family’ (good luck with that), but a connected family.” A vacation is a tool needed to make and maintain those connections. A happy vacation, he writes, won’t a happy family make.
It’s all about connections, memories, a foundation for future understanding and relationship-building. And don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s enough to simply disconnect. A staycation won’t cut it, as clarity “often emerges only with distance.”
Too true, Mr. Gillespie.
Almost There is both a trip down memory lane, for the author and the reader, and a thoughtful examination of the values inherent in a family vacation. The reader can be forgiven for occasionally wondering who this book is intended for, littered as it is with facts and figures that sometimes seem more relevant to marketing firms and other industry types. But the questions posed, and the laugh-out-loud reminiscences about his chaotic family, more than outweigh the minor irritations.
So give it a read, dig out the atlas, book a family meeting and start planning.
Sarah MacWhirter is The Globe and Mail’s Travel editor.