An article by Lexington in The Economist in August 2010, that triggered a discussion about paid vacation in the US.
“LET's take a boat to Bermuda, Let's take a plane to St Paul, Let's take a kayak to Quincy or Nyack, Let's get away from it all.” That may be all very well if you are not Lexington. For reasons only the flinty-hearted editor of this newspaper can explain, there will be no summer break this year for your columnist. True, Lexington has been allowed to saddle up his ultimate driving machine and motor north to join friends in a cabin in the Adirondacks. But get away from it all? No sir, this is a space that must be filled week in and week out this summer, come what may.
In a way, of course, it is fitting that a Brit writing about America should not be allowed actual relaxation on a summer holiday. Having a complete break would make it harder to understand the natives. As all the world knows, Americans find taking time off, let alone filling that time with leisure, painfully hard. One travel website, expedia.com, believes (what a surprise) that “everyone deserves and needs a vacation.” Indeed, it has compiled comparative international data on the scandal of “vacation deprivation”. These show that in 2009 the average American adult received about 13 days of holiday, whereas the average Briton enjoyed a luxurious 26. The average “working” Frenchman, infuriatingly, had 38 days. Worse yet, more than a third of Americans do not even take all the days they are allowed. In 2009, harrumphs Expedia, Americans “gave back” a total of 436m vacation days. In fairness, America does indulge its children: their school year is one of the shortest in the world, as is their school day. But the indulgence ends with adulthood.
Even when Americans do take time off, they find it hard to relax. Having holidayed for many years with the family of a Wall Street lawyer, your columnist's slumber has all too often been disturbed in the early hours by the murmur of writs, affidavits and threatening letters being dictated by phone to New York from Provence, Tuscany and other otherwise tranquil locations. It may be that without this unremitting industry the lawyer and his family could not have afforded quite so many hops across the Atlantic. But it seems pretty clear that something cultural—that famous Puritan fear of idle hands and easeful nights—is at work as well.
That is certainly the argument of “Working at Play”, Cindy Aron's aptly named social history of vacations in the United States, which argues that (up to 1940 at least, when her story ends) Americans have found themselves trapped in a love-hate battle with their holiday and have made a point of filling their leisure with various sorts of work—religious, intellectual and therapeutic. The middle classes did not start to take holidays in a big way until the late 19th century, at a time when the values that mattered were still industry and discipline, and when leisure and idleness were perceived as sources of moral, spiritual, financial and political danger. Many a modern holiday resort, such as Martha's Vineyard in Cape Cod, sprang out of a Methodist summer camp created to offer spiritual rather than physical comfort.
Like all theories about America as a whole, this one has its holes. How to explain Las Vegas? Besides, not all immigrants to America brought Puritanism in their hearts. From the 1930s onwards Jews living in New York started to holiday in the hundreds of rooming houses and hotels that sprouted in the nearby Catskill mountains. By all accounts the self-contained world they created there every summer was dedicated unabashedly to pleasure. They danced the rumba, and later the bossa nova, and thrilled to crooners and comedians from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. Though the posher hotels had swimming pools, golf courses and nightclubs, this was a magnet for Jews of all classes, and many families and their friends returned to the same hotels or rooming houses year after year, until air conditioning, affluence and cheap air travel made alternatives available and brought the enchanted little world to an end.
And yet neither affluence nor diversity seem to have made it as easy for Americans to relax on holiday in the way that guilt-free Europeans do. The American vacationer unable to silence his inner Puritan for those paltry 13 days a year must combine his holiday with some self-improving experience. Children are sent to camp to learn the Great Outdoors, or taught to fish or light fires by over-earnest fathers. Communing with history is another way to stiffen the laxity of a vacation: famous buildings, battlefields and landmarks are popular and lucrative draws. Not even Disney believes it can prosper by selling escapism alone. Hence its proposal for an American-history theme park outside Washington, DC (a scheme thwarted by the objections of local residents). And if the educational holiday fails, there is always the pilgrimage.
Saddle up and think very hard
Of which Lexington's journey to the Adirondacks is one. It would be simpler to hop on a plane, but how else, if not on wheels, to delve into the psyche of the holidaying American? Teddy Roosevelt enjoined Americans to rediscover the “strenuous life”, and your columnist embarks (in his air-conditioned BMW) in that spirit on this adventure with intimations of Steinbeck, Kerouac, “Easy Rider” and Lewis and Clark thrown in.
Beyond being part of the American passion for mobility, the road trip is a quest, less a search for pleasure than an act of exploration, not just of the land but also of the self. Cross the continent on one of its endlessly unspooling east-west highways and you will encounter many a pilgrim—solitary bikers on Harleys, hopeful families in their RVs—whose grail is not the Michelin-starred restaurant (fat chance) or the perfect beach but something at once simpler and loftier: “freedom”, perhaps. There are exceptions. Mark Twain sought only ham, eggs and scenery, “a fragrant pipe and a contented heart”. He was lucky not to work for The Economist's flinty-hearted editor. (A problem easily solved. Ed.)