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The Vacation Sweepstakes

Or, Go hongi yourself

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I was participating in a conference call, one of those invisible meetings where there's six or seven people on the line holding their breath in unison, waiting to see if somebody else is going to talk first. Whenever you do speak up, it's a weird sensation, like you're yelling down a well with only your own voice echoing back at you from the void. Mix in the paranoid suspicion that your unseen listeners are rolling their eyes in mockery or yawning away from the mouthpiece with boredom, and it can be pretty unnerving.

This is why I always feel sorry for the person in charge of the meeting, since they have to hold forth for fairly long stretches with absolutely no view of what their audience's reaction is. During this particular call, we were waiting for a couple of latecomers (always the same people) to join us, and the held-in breath was lying heavy on the wires.

Our chairman, Mark, in a game attempt to get something, anything, going, chirpily inquired, "What are everyone's travel plans for the summer?," the implication being that, of course, we had some. If it's summer and you're a comfortable-class, educated American without elaborate travel plans, clearly there's something deviant about you.

Well, you'd have thought he'd asked what everyone's favorite dessert was, because immediately the responses flowed hot and heavy.

"I just returned from Vienna, Prague, and Budapest," announced one participant.

"I'm headed to Beirut. It's safe now, and such a bargain," gushed another, in a tone that implied Eastern Europe is so over, while I'm thinking, Jesus Christ, aren't all the buildings in Beirut riddled with bullet holes in those photos you see? I'll bet it's a bargain.

"We're visiting California by way of the Grand Canyon," chimed in a third, as if either California or the Grand Canyon alone wouldn't be enough.

"Oh, for us it's just boring old Paris and London again," confessed another woman in a mock-embarrassed tone.

I considered announcing with puffed-up importance, "This very day, I'm taking the trip of a lifetime to our backyard lounge chair, which is safe, affordable, and culturally enriching!" but instead I merely bleated little "hmmm" sounds as evidence I was dutifully impressed.

Summer is when people whip out their travel plans like the verbal equivalent of Grandma's Brag Book, compulsively pressing upon you the adorable details. It's not the descriptions themselves that irk me, but the tone of competitive tripping that rages among the more well-heeled, as if there's a contest on to see who can come up with the most specialized journey to the most obscure place possible. Plain old Western Europe simply doesn't cut it anymore.

Glance through, say, The New Yorker, and you'll see ads for such adventures as a "Whales, Wines and Wilderness" trip to New Zealand, where apparently "hongi" is a verb meaning to press noses, or so the New Zealand pitch tells us. I hereby propose that "hongi" be adopted by the English language as a fresh alternative for the f-word, and vow to use it as such beginning right now, so hey, go hongi yourself. Can I run for Vice President now?

Anyway, this particular ad makes a scornful reference to the kind of vacation where you "sit around the pool drinking fruity drinks," as opposed to one where you take "scenic nature walks" (do they ever offer un-scenic nature walks?) and watch for whales, always a highly stimulating activity, I'm sure, along the lines of watching paint dry.

Personally I'm somewhat offended by their sneering attitude toward the fruity-drink scenario, since that actually approaches my summer-vacation ideal. Lounging around a pool drinking frozen Margaritas represents a kind of nirvana for me, with the only possible improvement being a shift in location from pool to beach.

I listen to accounts of backpacking in Belize or vineyard-hopping through Venezuela with genuine interest -- but no real envy. When it comes to summer vacation, I don't want to have to do anything remotely resembling work, including extensive walking, culture-schlepping, and seeking out creatures who might not want to be found, thank you. The only travel plan that incites true longing in me is the simple declaration, "We're going to the beach."

The reason I love the beach, aside from the ocean, is that it lends itself to lolling about. Some of my happiest summer memories have involved being prone. As an adolescent, I spent hours alternating between our raft-like sofa beneath the living room's open window and a chaise lounge beneath the backyard tree, reading and dreaming.

The beach is my absolute favorite place to read, and not dumb, "beach read" shit, either, but meaty stuff I can roll around in and dig down through like the sand. As for dreaming, there's nothing more conducive to it than staring at the waves' repetition and slipping into that humming, hypnotic-sleeping-pill high. The pane between being conscious and unconscious thins out.

A long mind-bake on the beach is topped off delectably by a good ol' hongi in the hay back at the room. Now that's tripping, bullet holes in Beirut be damned.

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