Published: Conde Nast Traveller India, August 23, 2017
<A line not in the original piece added to this blog version>

What use is a holiday if all you do is chase itineraries?

What-to-do-with-kids-on-vacation-866x487Illustration via Conde Nast Traveller: macy75/Getty Images

When a well-meaning but slightly bitchy mother asked me, ‘What did you do on the holiday?’, I tried to explain the multiple dimensions of ‘nothing’ and ‘absolutely nothing’ without launching into a philosophical explanation. But ‘nothing’ somehow isn’t good enough, it isn’t satisfying. Can a EUR25,000 holiday be justified with ‘nothing’ to show for it besides a couple of fridge magnets and boarding pass stubs?

Having survived trips with some serious holiday Nazis, my husband and I have decided that we are not cut out for vacations ruled by checklists. And with cultivated practice, neither is our nearly-seven-year-old daughter Samaira. When she was a year-and-a-half, we spent a fortnight on a beach in Goa to a rhythm driven entirely by mood, with regular meals, books and showers thrown in. We stayed put at the hotel, without venturing anywhere—not even to that seafood shack everyone was ‘peri-peri-ing’ about. But, we returned home entirely refreshed and with the perfect tan—neither of which should be taken lightly.

After a hectic city life filled with the kiddie social circus of playdates, BFF parties, birthday bashes and NRI visits (all of which require the perfect tan) I’ve realised that the only holiday to write home about is the one with no agenda. The one where you do nothing.

<It’s more than that though, it’s our inherent attitude towards learning. The belief that only within rigid boundaries do we achieve; but I counter, only with a lack of boundaries do we have the space to create.> And so, from experience, I suggest ways to do ‘nothing’ rather effectively:

Age 2: On the grass by the lake, Salzburg
We walked the same roads often, strolling and taking in the beauty of the landscape, creating a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar city. We stumbled upon a playground right by the lake, with an old tyre for a swing. Parking our stroller there, we watched her play for hours, jumping and crawling, swinging and singing. Not wanting to put a time limit on freedom, we walked over to the town and brought back a picnic lunch in a nondescript paper bag. We sat on the embankment, lay on the grass and caught the few rays of sunshine on a cloudy afternoon. She felt like a child out of an Enid Blyton book, minus the pet. Sandwiches, cheese, lemonade, chocolate. Ducks that came to be fed. Memories that contain the joy of play that is not timebound, set to the music of the hills.

Age 3: The home life, Suburban America
A month in the States, and there was no ‘plan’. It was as simple as (or as much as) exploring the local preschool summer activities, playing games in the backyard, tending to the organic garden with her own watering can, going grocery shopping, walking in the woods, checking out the local strawberry festival and the butterfly farm, playing mini-golf, bicycling down leafy lanes, helping make meals, loading the dishwasher… Somehow they all served to foster spirit and maturity that Disney world cannot.

From the latter, you may enjoy the rides (that take an hour’s wait to get onto), bring back the toys and pleasant memories, but it’s a world of incredible make-believe. But by exposing them to a real-life environment that fosters independence in day-to-day skills, you allow them to explore a backyard filled with stories and mysteries of the imagination.

Age 4: People watching, Lisbon
In the long hours of summer, cafes on those cobbled streets were bursting with an eclectic mix of people. It seemed a shame to bypass the moment and rush off to the next place on the itinerary. Strong coffee, luscious berry tarts and people make for the perfect mix. We talked about a local shop that we liked, the street artist that appeared unable to take a bathroom break as he stood in the sweltering heat slathered with silver paint. We watched the birds swoop by and peck at tea-cake crumbles. We observed the American family that wore pearls and boat shoes together, and the Asian one that stared at their mobile phones together.

We tried to explain to our daughter why the two men—one scruffy and rather unwashed, and the other boho-chic—were holding hands, whispering sweet nothings and about to kiss. We thought of ways to tackle questions about marriage and babies with enough truth and enough circumspection. We watched her throw pennies into the water fountain, and talked about the significance and history of the buildings. People came and went, and we watched others who watched, taking a leaf out of the book of the best old-world artists and writers. We talked, mused, we stayed silent. Thoughts were built, explored and connected to new ones.

Age 5: Gallery observations, Budapest
A small travelling exhibit of a retrospective of Picasso’s art drew us in. We thought we could jet in and out quickly. I kept the folks waiting in the cafe as I took my daughter to check it out. She washed her hands off Picasso fairly quickly, but decided that Hungarian art deserved a bit more attention. War-torn moments, installations and gigantic abstract canvases caught her eye, and we spent five hours inside the National Gallery, where I had planned to spend 15 minutes. Children seem to have more interest in modern or abstract art than figurative art, perhaps. The lack of form allows them to draw from their imagination, which figurative art would perhaps limit them from doing. Sitting on those gallery benches, feeling like a moment out of The Thomas Crown Affair, helped rest my tired limbs and let her mind roam free.

Age 6: Cruise control, The Adriatic Sea
Every morning we would wake with anticipation of a new bit of land that would magically appear before us. Discovering a different country each day was an exciting experience, but cruises can be as hectic or peaceful as you would like them to be. With daily ports of call do you jam yourself in the routine of getting out, exploring and returning only to start the process all over again the next day? As we watched the hordes of travellers line up to ‘see’ the town and all its neighbouring heritage spots, we took a call—to not join them. We would begin with a leisurely breakfast on a nearly-empty ship, chatting with the crew that hailed from all parts of the world. Eventually, we would step out for a couple of hours to grab a light lunch or coffee in the town, drawing the locals into a conversation and keeping an eye out for an authentic home-grown boutique that stood out from the mass of chain stores.

Way before departure time, we would turn back, giving my daughter downtime in the balcony to sketch the day’s observations (while we Instagrammed), before the others arrived exhausted but replete with stories to tell back home. We had no stories; just flights of fancy, moods of a town captured through its locals and tourists, little streets or a Church explored. She had a point, after all, when she observed, ‘Mamma, all the ‘old towns’ look the same’.

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