Our family vacations have always been well orchestrated events. Itineraries are plotted, routes and destinations marked, tickets bought, and hotels booked months in advance. The chief organiser of it all is always my mother. It’s the women in our family of three who have the travel bug. My father prefers relaxing holidays and is happy to go along with what we plan as long as it’s not too isolated, not too high on a mountain or too deep in a forest, or underwater. I love museums and sampling new cuisines while mum loves mountains and markets. Taking all these preferences into consideration, my mother sits down with the laptop, a stack of guidebooks and magazines, and plans it all. To her credit, I’ve never had a family holiday I didn’t enjoy.
This year however, after what I presume was much debate with herself, my mother decided to pass on the baton. We were going to Switzerland and I was asked to plan this trip to one of my mother’s bucket list destinations, keeping some health-related challenges in mind. For the first time, it would be just the two of us. Clearly, there was no pressure at all.
Over the next few weeks, an interesting role reversal developed. My mum made lists of the woollens to take along, and tried to decide which kind of overcoat she wanted to buy. She thought about the food we would eat, the cheeses she wanted to buy, the stunning views of the Alps. My thoughts revolved around hotel bookings, travel passes, and train schedules. She made requests and polite demands, and I did the research to figure out how to fulfil them.
Being in charge was great. It felt good to see that my admittedly protective parents believed I was capable of planning a holiday. It was also a chance to show off the things I’d learnt during my year studying abroad, while maintaining the nuances of itinerary-making I’d picked up from ma.
However, nothing prepared me for the experience of watching my mother transform into a five-year-old while on holiday in Switzerland. She looked at the Rhine Valley in wide-eyed wonder while riding the Glacier Express. On hot afternoons, she sported my very “hip” tank-tops. Outside a Swiss Bank in Chur she unabashedly hugged a huge, stone ball and insisted on taking photographs there and everywhere else. She laughed uproariously while zipping over snow-clad Mt. Titlis on the Ice Flyer chairlift. She absolutely refused to engage with any complicated piece of technology, leaving it all to me to figure out. I was reminded of all the times as an over-eager child I dragged my patient parents to places they didn’t want to see, insisted on embarrassing photographs, or satisfying an obscure food craving. While my mother’s behaviour was more subtle, I saw in her the excited, inquisitive child I believe I used to be.
For me, the holiday became about discovering another side to my mother—a carefree side that shone forth. The woman who still thinks nothing of reminding me to do everyday tasks and frets about my meals, was happy to just gaze in wonder at the sights while I took care of the practical details. It was an unusual feeling to be on the other side of the fence, even if just momentarily. My mother had dozens of questions, and I was relieved to have most of the answers. I felt more like a responsible adult than I had ever before.
As it turned out, I didn’t get to see the Hammetschwand Lift, the one place I had put in the itinerary solely for my viewing pleasure. But that didn’t matter. Back home, when I heard ma talking to her friends about her trip—the people we met, the delicious ice cream, the potable water at every fountain—I felt a sense of pride. But more than that, I’d known the absolute joy of seeing a parent let go of inhibitions, delight in a vacation, and become as carefree as a child.
I’m thinking about planning a holiday with my father next. Though, considering our somewhat different takes on travel, a quiet place within our nation’s borders might be the most sensible pick.
Appeared in the February 2016 Swiss Special issue as “Role Reversal”.
Rumela Basu is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Her favourite kind of travel involves food, literature, dance and forests. She travels not just to discover new destinations but also aspects of herself.