A few helpful hints for the perfect summer vacation
By Gerry Bowler
WARNING: The following article contains humour and therefore should only be taken somewhat seriously.
A while back the Mormon church ran a series of ads encouraging domestic togetherness. In one of them a family, tired of being neglected by the workaholic father, lures the busy man into a camper and kidnaps him. As they drive away they giggle at their own daring and tell Dad that he really has no choice but to accompany them.
Though some viewers might have been left with a warm glow of appreciation for the notion of mandatory conviviality, I was less impressed. I wanted the Mormons to show us the sequel about the inevitable consequences of making a family travel together: the father cursing by the side of the road in a downpour as he tries to fix a flat tire while the rest of the clan merrily plays cribbage in the van; the teenage daughter, wearying of her younger brother, ditching him at Canada’s Wonderland so she can text her boyfriend in private. There’s Mom, hours overdue for a rendezvous at the food court as she is caught up in a frenzy of shoe-buying at the Mall of America; Junior disappears with new friends at the beach leaving his tear stricken parents convinced he has drowned. And finally we have the long, sullen drive home as each family member nurses his or her grievances and vows never to do this sort of thing again.
The idea of family vacations is a relatively new one in human history. There is no record of ancient Egyptian parents packing up the brood and hiking off to Giza to watch the Hebrew slaves erecting the new pyramids and boasting, “Someday, little Imenhotep, this plateau will be packed with tourists from far-off lands having their pockets picked and being cheated by swarms of touts.”
When the Roman emperor Tiberius vacationed on the isle of Capri, you may be sure that he took pains to leave the family at home—the one time he didn’t, he ended up murdered by his kinfolk. It is worth noting that Laura Secord left her kids with her husband when she embarked on her cross-country jaunt in 1813.
Only with the post-war Baby Boom and the affordability of Detroit’s chrome-bedizened land yachts did it occur to families that they might journey together to amusement parks, snake farms and sundry tourist traps around North America. It is with no fondness that I recall the hours of tedium in the vast back seat of a 1959 Chevrolet Biscayne, exchanging sly pokes with my little brother, playing license-plate Bingo and badgering my parents to stay only at motels with swimming pools and beds that vibrated when you inserted a 25-cent piece.
My father must have spent the entire vacation budget on those magic beds because when, after days of driving in the summer heat, we arrived at Mount Rushmore he refused to pay the price of admission to the car park and we had to view the monument from miles away. (Apparently there is now a high fence at that spot to prevent similarly thrifty visitors from imitating my dad.)
With this history in mind, I offer the following tips for fathers considering creating the perfect family vacation:
- Always pack less than you think you need. If this means leaving behind an extra shirt, the baby or the surly teenager, so be it.
- If you are travelling by car, invest in a conversation mirror. Nothing induces good back-seat behaviour like the parental Eye of Sauron monitoring every infant maneuver.
- Should noisy and quarrelsome activity continue, or should the question “Are we there yet?” be repeated every two minutes, resist the desire to threaten to stop the car and leave the annoying children by the side of the road—kids know you are unlikely to do so and vain threats diminish parental authority.
- However, if you decide to carry out your ultimatum, make sure your abandoned offspring are equipped with a road map, sunscreen and enough small change to call Social Services.
- If you are travelling by airplane, remember that the quickest way to make to exciting new acquaintances is to allow your toddler to incessantly kick the seat the in front of him.
- Child psychologists are divided on the question of sleepinducing drugs when travelling with small children on long flights. That old stand-by, the gin-soaked rag, has given way to patent medicines such as Gravol or Dramamine but doctors recommend that you not take too much or you will be unable to wake at the end of the journey and deal with the damage done by the kids during your blissful unconsciousness.
- If you are the sort of hearty chap who enjoys camping; who yearns to abandon the blessings of indoor plumbing and airconditioning; who considers blood-sucking insects to be all part of God’s wonderful plan for the universe; who willingly places himself in the path of cougars, poison ivy, skunks, lightning strikes, rabid raccoons, rock slides, outdoor privies and the drunken antics of the yahoos in the next campsite; in short, a man who rejects the very fabric of civilization which humanity spent centuries building—ask yourself why you are willing to inflict your unhealthy obsession with the dangers of Mother Nature on your loved ones. No child ever caught Lyme Disease from an afternoon at the public library; no mother ever had to pluck leeches from the legs of a kid at the municipal swimming pool; there have been no verifiable reports of grizzly bear attacks at the 7-11.
- If in a moment of loving optimism you once promised your children you would treat them to a family holiday at one of North America’s famous vacation parks, reconsider your rash gesture. The cost of a trip to Disney World is going to take at least $5,000 out of your budget and leave you with only memories of endless lineups, a collection of novelty straws from over-priced theme restaurants and a complimentary shower cap that you scarfed from the Caribbean Beach Resort.
- If your children protest about your broken promise, do as I once did when my kids complained that I hadn’t ever taken them to the Magic Kingdom: I reminded them that I had many years left to live and that I wasn’t yet through with not taking them to Disneyland.
- A final word of advice about family holidays: grandparents. If you are lucky enough to have surviving parents or in-laws, treat them to a lengthy visit from their grandchildren. The oldsters love nothing better than indulging the little dears in their every unreasonable wish, ice cream at all hours of the day and night, extended bedtimes and heart-warming tales about how wicked you were as a child.
This will enable you to take the best possible vacation of your own—time away from the kids with the woman that you love (which is to say, your wife). Stay at home and just enjoy the peace; go to Paris unencumbered by kids who don’t yet understand how wonderful the place is; take a road trip to places from your own youth. Listen to audiobooks, hold hands, recover your equilibrium and smile. That’s what a real holiday is for.
Gerry Bowler is a cultural historian who teaches at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
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