The English word vacation comes from the Latin vacans, the present active participle of vaco, which can mean, depending on the context, to be free, to be at leisure, or to be empty. Since Hungarian straightforwardly uses the same word, ‘szabadság’ both for freedom and vacation, and in Romanian you will say ‘îmi iau liber’, I take my freedom, when you go on vacation, I have always closely associated the two. Vacationing and freedom.
Modern tourism, however, is in many ways the opposite of freedom. You travel by charter flight together with about three hundred people who are going to the same place as you are, to do the same things. You are taken by bus to a hotel where all rooms look the same, and people have the same food from the restaurant. In the morning, they have breakfast, and most places will have things like ‘English breakfast’ or ’continental breakfast’, so that you can eat exactly the same things like at home, but in an exotic setting. You then go to the beach, where everyone wears the same swimsuits made by the five or so affordable global brands and reads the same books, whatever crime novel or romance has recently become popular. You take pictures of cats and sunsets and get many likes on social media. You get either a sunburn or a sunstroke, possibly a stomachache or a headache from eating or drinking too much. But then, when you go home, you remember your holiday fondly, and tell your family and friends that you had a wonderful time, and you were free to do as you pleased. You were never miserable, no existential angst ever assailed you. You were on vacation, but you were never vacant.
You worked hard at it, though. Because we all know that vacations are in fact quite miserable experiences. Planes get delayed, check-in is a nightmare, the passenger in the neighbouring seat chews loudly, summer storms bring turbulence, the hotel room is more cramped than expected, the hairdryer is useless, the ham at breakfast tastes weird, your skin itches from sun and salt irritation, you get into petty arguments with your travel companions, you miss a connection, a cute cat scratches you and you wonder whether your symptoms are scratch fever or rabies, the Booker winner you brought along as a fancy beach read is disappointing and someone’s Instagram feed will always be more inspirational than yours. Look at them, look at everyone else who’s been here. How happy they were.
Hydra is so tantalizingly beautiful that it lured many with this promise of freedom and leisure. They came, they saw, but they didn’t conquer. As a matter of fact, they were often miserable, here, on this slice of paradise. They wrote books, poems, songs to make sense of this malaise. Unspeakable, but forever urging to be spoken. I’d begun to seek out these works, ordered them off obscure booksellers, snapped up new editions, reread some, hoping to find some form of meaning that finally made sense. Perhaps this it, I thought to myself one day when, looking over the bay, over the endless blue of the sea, sparking in the midday sun like crushed diamonds, the outlines of the mainland dancing on the horizon, I suddenly felt empty. Vacant. It wasn’t a good feeling, nor was it necessarily unpleasant. It was new, a revelation. Something about the strangeness of life came flooding through gates I’d hitherto kept closed. Perhaps being on vacation, really being on vacation, was not so much about the freedom and the leisure, which are often relative, but about the emptiness. Emptiness that is neither carefree nor careless, it’s a conduit to let things flow through you without judgement or suspicion. Some feelings are good, and some are bad, but you accept their visitation, study them with the curious eye of a scientist. Possibly, if you practice being dispassionately vacant long enough, you finally become inhabited by the elusive freedom you sought in the first place. I will not fool myself that this illumination will last.
I lack the discipline and perseverance to make it do so. I’ll fret again over mundane concerns, anxiously plan perfect travels that will unavoidably unravel, be a little sad when my cute Greek cat gets less likes than somebody else’s. Because the algorithm hates me. Just as the referee hates my team. And the Fates hated me when they dealt me crooked teeth and short fingers. (I once dreamt of being a pianist. I am completely tone deaf.) The man whose path I accidentally cut with my bike hates me too, he said it so, and days later, it still haunts me. This failure. And the many to come. Someone very wise who once lived on this island was hoping to write a manual for living with defeat. I had promised myself to write something about Hydra without a Leonard Cohen reference. At this I have failed too. All I can cling to is that every now and then I’ll end up on this rock with pebbly beaches and be able to, ever so briefly, take a vacation from all the crazy luggage I carry around.