By Susan Farewell
Last February, while staying at a ski lodge, I noticed a teenager parked on a couch in the lounge area. It was the middle of a beautiful ski day and she was surrounded by books, most notably a physics textbook.
Poor kid, I thought…having to do homework on vacation while the rest of the family is out carving turns on the slopes. It wasn’t until later – well into après-ski time –that my husband pointed out to me that I also had stayed back at the hotel to work that day.
This is not uncommon. I tend to haul tons of work with me on every vacation. My logic has always been that I’m a travel writer and I’m never actually “on vacation.” Every place is a possible story and I always have to be on the lookout for ideas. But the truth is, I’d be dragging work with me everywhere I traveled even if I was a dog groomer or a surgeon.
I’m not alone. In fact, in my own family, I have plenty of company. My husband, daughter and I do not travel anywhere without three laptops. When we arrive at a hotel, the first thing we do is claim workspaces and outlets.
Beyond my family, I’ve heard many a story of friends and colleagues who couldn’t leave work behind. One friend, Janet Riccio, who is a NYC-based advertising executive, told me that several years ago, she had rented a house in Cape Cod for a couple of weeks. She invited her brother and his family to come for a short visit. The first night they were there, they all went out to a lovely fish restaurant in town. Right after being seated, Janet’s phone rang. “It was my office in Taiwan—melting down over the potential loss of its largest client.” By the time she sat back down at the table, dessert was being served. “I don’t think anyone missed me,” she mused. They had each other.
For another friend, there were no “others” to cover for her. Angelique Bernier, a Chicago-based meeting planner was in Puerto Rico with her fiancé, Tony. They had driven to a remote spot in Fajardo for lunch and were literally sitting at a table at the water’s edge. “We ordered this amazing lunch of red snapper bites and mofongo and then I had to dial into a conference call.” Unfortunately, the food arrived at the table just when all the participants joined the conference call and with the sound of waves crashing, it was too noisy. “I wound up eating my food in the car,” she explains and “the call ran so long that Tony kept coming to the car to clear away my dishes and bring me the next course!”
It’s not just phone calls that have a way of interrupting vacations. Abbie Kozolchyk, a New Yorker who actually wasn’t on vacation, but was in Egypt for a travel article she was writing, had to literally drag work for what she called her “other job” (writing beauty stories for women's magazines). “When I left for the trip, I hadn’t finished a skincare story I'd been working on. So I packed the products in question—all million of them—in a separate bag and took them with me. By day, I’d explore temples and markets, and by night (back in my hotel room), moisturizers and serums.“
Aside from taking work or having the work follow us, many of us can simply not stop thinking about the work we do—regardless of where we are. My brother, Michael Farewell, a partner at Farewell Architects in Princeton, New Jersey shared a great story with me. While traveling in the uplands of Guatemala, he was touring Mayan sites and had spent the day at Tikal in the Lake Peten Itza area. “We’d been climbing monumental staircases all day—it seemed like the ascent to the heavens was the very essence of this architecture. When we got back from our tour of the temple complexes, I had an urgent call from the office waiting. “ It turned out that a house he was working on in New Jersey was under construction and the stairs had come in at the wrong size. “The builder wanted to know if we could rework the plan to have this larger stair. I was in a good mood and said we would find a way to make the larger stair work.” He adds, “I remember wondering if there were some similar conversations a thousand years ago that led to oversized stairs in the jungle. We always assume grand artistic intention, but maybe things just went awry in the field.”
The bigger issue is whether the Mayan architects had been on vacation themselves. Because we may not like to admit it, but the work we do on vacation sometimes is our best work of all. Away from the distractions of offices and meetings, we can often be more creative and productive and even more attentive on phone calls. So you may not like the idea of taking work on vacation, but you might just like the work you bring back home.
Illustrations by Chris Murphy. To learn more about his work, visit here.