The Free Republic of Balconia

Telluride Daily Planet, Monday, March 29, 2010

Martine, another of the French cousins, was bragging non-stop about her nine weeks of paid vacation just prior to being fired from her administrative job in Paris. Before that little karmic dart popped her bubble, all I could think about was if she didn’t shut up about it, someone might actually have to put her in the fire.

It had truly become excruciating, that sharp turn of the conversation (usually at the cheese course) to faraway places, the names of which she would somehow wedge, noun-like, into day-to-day life. Once the pallet of photo albums was inevitably wheeled in, all I could do was pray the pictures would be allowed to speak their own thousand words. That she’d just eat her triple crème, flip the pages, and point.

But, come on. Two full months of paid vacation? You can live a secret life in two months. Grow arugula. Take a literal slow boat to China. Fall headlong and drown in the deep well of a love affair. In two months, you can even learn to use your cell phone reasonably well.

Or, if you’re the type, you can ration two months into a year’s supply of long weekends. Of late mornings, cinnamon toast, crosswords, baths — a soundtrack sweet enough to muffle the whitest noise of nine-to-five. Fifteen hundred and twelve hours, simply put, is a lot of quarters to drop into the vacation-o-meter.

So, given these bloated statistics from the other side of the pond, Americans are likely to feel deprived, or, far worse, falsely deprived. Isn’t it better to feel rich, blessed and swathed in the white light of leisure? Which begs the question: What is leisure? What’s a vacation? Are its increments minutes, days and weeks? Moments out of time? Events? Epiphanies? Trips taken? Sights seen? Lines drawn? Fantasies? Are photos units of vacation?

Not sure, is my answer to all of the above.

Chances are, your idea of vacation has something to do with your childhood. I can count the number of vacations — by today’s standards — my family took on three fingers. Because of the military and moving so much at the beginning of my father’s career, eventually, my parents simply stopped wanting to budge altogether. Vacation was dinner on the patio, looking out over Lake Washington, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Baker — a big beautiful living mandala for the third-eye of our family. Vacation for my dad was his shop, and for mom it was hydrangeas, dogwoods and azaleas in the garden. For me, vacation was sunbathing on my deck and listening to my transistor radio — lying there dreaming of being someone who went to faraway places on vacation.

Thus, one wonders just how broad the concept of vacation is: isn’t 15 minutes in a fast car listening to the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince a vacation? Could standing outside sipping coffee at 6 a.m. looking at Venus in bare feet in the summertime possibly be considered a vacation? How about a deeply felt fantasy version of that, indulged in the middle of winter in the middle of a day at work? And what about on the other end of the spectrum: are Martine’s nine bloated weeks fully appreciated or merely used like hoarded Get Out of Jail Free cards in a real, live game of Monopoly?

Sour grapes, right? Oh, maybe. Because at the end of a long winter, I’ll take a 63rd of nine weeks of vacation — a single day of possibility, liberation, adventure and of rest. One day of big-happy-sigh mode. One day of unchaining my heart, getting it on a leash, and letting someone walk it. Right now I want the fast car, I want Venus, I want tickets to Prince, and I want enough cash and imagination to brand it permanently onto the fleshy core of the present moment. I feel like having a tantrum this very second.

Instead, in a moment of grace, I flash on a word a German friend used one day while pointing the ember tip of her cigarette down at the brick pavers of our patio. The one currently buried in five feet of cement-like snow, snow so dense a glacier is forming.

“You know Balconia?” she asks. I shake my head.

She takes a drag. “Balconia,” she says, “is vacation — on your balcony. Right here. It’s your own private spot you can go to without leaving. That’s what we call it in Germany. Balconia”

Oh that Balconia — of course! A tiny but magnificent vacationland where even half an hour of leisure has health benefits. I’m already feeling them, in fact, just thinking about it.

I toy with the idea of trying to explain this place, just across the border (any border), to Martine. Would she know what I was talking about? Your guess is as good as mine.

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