Breaking Away With the Pack

On the morning we were leaving for spring vacation a couple of weeks ago, my wife looked out our bedroom window at the apartment across the street. It was 5 A.M. and the lights were on there, too.

I know the husband, slightly. He’s English and keeps his bedroom shades drawn. I’m American and keep mine open. When we got in the car to go to the airport, my wife reported that she’d seen our neighbors’ lights go off, and she wondered whether they were heading to Tortola, our destination in the British Virgin Islands.

One might assume the odds of such a thing remote, as I myself suggested in my most unattractive 5 A.M. manner, but my wife’s supposition isn’t nearly as absurd as it might at first sound. For one thing, everybody seems to go away these days, and not to the Poconos.

“I was just at a parents association meeting,” my friend Ann reported a few days ago. “I was amazed how many women damaged their skin over the holidays.” As a matter of fact, Tortola was among the less exotic destinations to which people we knew were traveling. One dad was taking his daughters to the Galapagos. Another family was off to Africa. A third had gotten their vaccinations and were heading to the Amazon to feed the piranha.

But the destination is almost beside the point: When one arrives, and it doesn’t seem to matter where, one is almost guaranteed to run into several other New York City families, and often traveling en masse. The thinking seems to be that while it’s wonderful to expose kids to new cultures, that can most pleasantly be achieved if they’re allowed to maintain the same hectic schedule of playdates and sleepovers they enjoy at home, only now at their respective rental villas, followed by marathon Game Boy sessions on the beach.

I understand how the cycle builds momentum because we’re as much to blame as anybody. My wife will tell somebody how much she loves a place we visited and the next time you visit there, voilà!, they are at the pool hogging all the chaises.

Further, being New Yorkers, they fairly crackle with energy and always need to be occupied-not just the kids but also the parents. Rarely content to sit on the beach and read a book, their metabolism demands they have an activity and they want you to join them, often splitting the cost.

The last time I agreed, a father in one of my kid’s schools invited us for a motorboat ride, with himself as the skipper. Turns out he was better at reading spread sheets than navigation maps and we promptly ran aground a coral reef. I ran into the same fellow a few months later having breakfast at a hotel in Venice, which he’d visited on our recommendation. I’ve got nothing against the guy; he’s intelligent and charming. But I feel about spending my vacations with acquaintances from New York the same way I do about having CNN in my hotel room wherever I go. It makes the world a little less exotic.

When I was growing up, we went away for spring break only once, to Fort Lauderdale. I don’t remember feeling deprived. But a mother recently confided that her family continues to travel on spring vacation even though they can no longer afford it because everybody else in her daughter’s seventh-grade class does. I know how she feels. What am I supposed to tell my daughter when her classmates return from vacation with golden tans, their hair beaded and in cornrows?

I tried to find somebody who doesn’t go away and might have something piquant to say about the vast lemming majority who does. So I called my friend Jane, a magazine editor, and asked her whether she felt depressed having to hold down a day job when her peers were off cruising the Caribbean. “Of course I don’t feel depressed,” she snorted. “To feel depressed because I can’t go to Little Dix Bay is absurd. I don’t even know I’d like Little Dix Bay.”

Turns out she’s just a big talker. She wasn’t within 1,000 miles of her office over spring break. “We were going to go to Rome but it turned out to be the 2,000th anniversary of Jesus,” she reported. “So we went to Miami instead.”

That little contretemps over Elián Gonzalez only lent a frisson of excitement to the trip. “There’s a lot of politics and people with passionate opinions,” she stated enthusiastically. “It’s like New York, only in the tropics.”

Perhaps a more apt distinction than the one between those who get to go away and those who don’t, since everybody apparently does, is between those who are forced to fly commercial and those who enjoy the convenience of a private jet.

One mom said she caused eyebrows to raise at her son’s preschool recently when she announced that their family wasn’t going anywhere for spring break. She explained that rushing through airports with a 3 year old and 1 year old and their respective strollers, diapers, folding cribs and juice bottles was too gruesome to contemplate. A fellow mom tried to share her pain.

“She said, ‘Don’t you just hate flying commercial?’ I looked at her in disbelief. She said, ‘We just flew private down to the Caribbean. It was the best 40 grand I spent this year.’ I was in shock. I felt this new money thing had gone too far if a 36 year old is saying this to a 35 year old.”

We didn’t run into our neighbors from across the street at the airport, and not because they were picking up their Gulfstream at the Marine Air Terminal. It’s because we tried to save a few bucks by flying out of Newark. But sure enough, when we touched down in San Juan, there they were in the departure lounge waiting to board the next plane to Tortola. Our reunion wasn’t awkward at all. They seemed as little surprised to see us as were to see them. We even introduced them to a third couple we ran into in the departure lounge whose daughter attends our older daughter’s school and who were also on their way to Tortola.

As things go these days, three Upper East families swapping air kisses far from home is no big deal. I considered myself fortunate that we weren’t on our way to Sun Valley, which I understand looked like a refugee camp for

10128-ers. Or to the Breakers in Palm Beach, where a beachhead was reportedly also established.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. Over President’s weekend, what seemed like my older daughter’s entire lower school congregated at Catamount ski area in the Berkshires. At some point, I found myself skiing down a slope in the middle of a crowd of about 10 of my fellow parents. I felt protected and that evening we invited about a dozen of them to our house for dinner, along with about double that many children. I’m starting to know what it feels like to spend summers in the Hamptons.

That couple from across the street? We ran into them at several different beaches on Tortola, but didn’t spend much time together. Perhaps I found a way to break this vicious cycle of familiarity that constitutes the vacation experience. Once people see me padding around my bedroom in my underwear, they don’t want to socialize with me.

Breaking Away With the Pack