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Are we back yet?


Tomorrow is the day we've been waiting for since June. Duffel bags are open on the floor. Frantic searches for beach towels and sandals have turned closets and drawers inside out.

The newspaper has been suspended. The fridge is empty. The neighbors and the mailman have been alerted. The dog skitters frantically from suitcase to suitcase, settling down to whine by the front door. My son can't find his sunglasses or his MP3 player; I can't find black flip-flops or an acceptable bathing suit.

Tonight, I'll try to fall asleep while going over a monster to-do-before-we-leave list in my head. I need to be rested for the seven-hour drive. At dawn, we'll join the long line of cars leaving town to idle in traffic jams on our way to dank cottages where we will sleep miserably on hard beds, nurse our sunburns and live on French fries and ice cream. I'm already homesick, and we haven't even left yet.

As a good parent, I want my kids to have vacations. Isn't vacation the birthright of the American middle class? Or maybe it's the curse. Children in airplanes, children in restaurants -- need I say more? One all-day beach picnic with my 3-year-old was so harrowing that we were back at the rented house before breakfast. Who can "relax" when they are obligated to relax?

I have a lot of trouble enjoying myself when it's mandatory, especially when a few nights in a motel and a few restaurant meals for the family add up to the cost of a used car.

Before I had children, I took some European vacations. I thought these were the height of sophistication. My husband and I would fly to Paris, or London, rent a car and drive from town to town, eating as much as possible at any and all recommended restaurants.

We drank Guinness and ate bubble and squeak or Scotch eggs at pubs in the little towns of the Cotswolds, and washed our souffls down with Chateau Y'Quem in starred restaurants in Provence. We were enjoying ourselves! We were having a ball!

After a few days of this, I always was desperately sick. Undeterred -- this was vacation! we were having fun! -- we caromed from magnificent chateau to chateau, desperately trying to digest while jostling other tourists in tight spaces.

All I remember of Chenonceau is learning that Diane de Poitiers didn't eat much. I wondered if the builders of Stonehenge would have finished their work had they known about the trifle and sherry at The Bear in Woodstock.

I always was very glad to head home.

The turning point came when my husband, a writer, needed to tour the World War I battlefields in France. It wouldn't really be a vacation, he told me apologetically. The week we spent reading the literature of World War I and walking the fields of the Somme was one of the most extraordinary of my life.

The scratched-together meals of bread and cheese that we ate at the roadside were a thousand times more delicious than any three-star feast. Overwhelmed by the heroism of some men and the suffering of all, we slept gratefully in whatever bed was available.

It's nerdy to admit, but learning actually is more fun than a day at the beach. As a journalist, I began to see that trips I took for work often were more interesting than vacations. I visited Ernest Hemingway's house in Cuba and Louisa May Alcott's house in Concord, Mass. I saw the Mayan ruins in Guatemala while interviewing Frances Ford Coppola.

I drove up and down the California coast trying to interview Clint Eastwood -- his publicist said he would be in Monterey, then his publicist said he would be in San Francisco -- and finally had tea with him at the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles. Now that was fun!

I still love battlefields.

I spent an amazing day at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., walking the lines where our ancestors lay down their lives for our freedom, and last summer I finally got to Gettysburg. A friend of mine has spent decades visiting every capitol in the United States.

So why am I going on vacation when I know better? I'll be taking a duffel filled with work. I plan a detour to see the Dry Salvages off the coast of Massachusetts, three rocks visible at low tide for which one of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets is named. I hope to visit the other three places in the poem someday.

Maybe I go on vacation because everyone else does, or maybe I go because it feels so good to come home.

--Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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