To Be Absolutely Frank

The Art of Doing Nothing

When it comes to vacations, Americans have a lot to learn.

By 7.25.02

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"We're cutting short our vacation this year," an overworked Italian friend lamented recently. "We'll probably just go to the beach for a couple of weeks."

By U.S. standards, 14 days with nothing to do is quite a decent spell -- or an indecent one, to those in the grip of the work ethic. For the ever-more-typical American linked to the office by laptop and cell-phone, two weeks at the beach wouldn't really be a vacation anyway.

Europeans do things differently. For months already, this year's summer holiday destination has been a major theme of party conversation, even when (as is often the case) it's the same place as the year before: the rustic cottage in the mountains or the high-rise beach-front condominium.

The cliché is true: people in the Old World are better than Americans at doing nothing, and not just for a fortnight. Whoever can get away with it will spend all next month out of town. That's why Paris, Rome and Madrid are so famously devoid of natives in August.

Doing nothing for fun might sound easy, but it's actually a learned skill, and one I lack even more than most Americans do. It's all my parents' fault, of course. While my boyhood pals found relief from suburban monotony at the lake or in the woods, our family headed for the highways.

One summer when I was 14, we covered most of the Old Confederacy and several border states in our Chevy Impala, my parents sitting up front while my two younger brothers and I took the back. Yes, we had air conditioning, but nothing like the Game Boys or other high-tech diversions that today's kids take for granted.

I did have a portable 8-track, the Panasonic "Dynamite 8," which I used to subject my family to countless repetitions of the American Graffiti soundtrack and a Frank Sinatra best-of compilation. Amazing that my parents put up with this, though I suppose they were just grateful that I wasn't listening to Eddie Money or the Atlanta Rhythm Section.

Virtually every night meant a different Holiday or Ramada Inn, which was exciting for my brothers, but boring to me (as were most things at that age, especially when they involved family), and no doubt exhausting for my parents. Perhaps my dad found his hours behind the wheel a release of nervous tension, but why did my mom put up with it?

The essential reason was education. My parents wanted to expose us to as much as possible of our country, and this entailed visiting famous tourist attractions as well as less obvious sites.

One stop on our southern tour was Memphis, which in those pre-Grisham days was known chiefly for Elvis. The King had been dead less than a year but already there was an entire mall of memorabilia shops across the street from his house. Naturally we toured Graceland, of which I especially remember Elvis's tombstone, next to his mother's in the garden. These were (and still are, I suppose) of highly polished black stone, presumably marble, with inscriptions in gold.

A few hours later we drove to a very different part of town to see the Lorraine Motel, where 10 years earlier James Earl Ray had murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. -- an event as legendary and remote to me then as the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The motel was still in business, but hardly thriving, and the desk clerk was not too busy to take us up to King's former room.

Inside was a glass case with a rudimentary display of photographs, and out on the balcony a plaque, and that was it. No gift shop, no guided tour, no audiovisual aids. The motel employee pointed out the direction whence the shots had come, and exchanged some sad, well-meant words with my father about the need for peace. (The Lorraine has since been transformed into a civil rights museum.)

After our visit, my brothers and I heard a few words from our father about the fickle nature of fame, but we really didn't need them. The lesson had been clear on its own. No doubt my parents felt that this leg of our educational odyssey had paid off.

Now I have a son of my own, but he's still a little young for edifying travel, and I don't have the stamina for long car trips. Not to mention that gasoline in Italy costs more than three times what it does in the States. So we've opted for a tranquil stay on a farm only a couple of hours from our house. I still haven't learned to do nothing on vacation, though. Otherwise I wouldn't have brought my laptop with me, and I wouldn't be writing this column right now.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.