On Philly Fatherhood: My Dad, Vacation King

For three glorious weeks a year, my father went insane.

Photograph provided by Ashley Primis.

Photograph provided by Ashley Primis.

Most of the year, there was Regular Dad.

Regular Dad was kind of like Don Draper (minus the three-martini lunches and workday naps). He was a hardworking, good-looking, big-city, big-job media guy, with monogrammed cuffs on custom dress shirts. He lunched at the Rainbow Room. His job was high-stress, and we didn’t see a lot of him: He left our bucolic New Jersey home each morning before the sun had fully cracked the horizon and came home late each evening — all to beat the rush-hour traffic. His long commute, which was filled with off-ramps and toll roads, bridges and tunnels, was something he did every day for nearly 30 years without complaint. Regular Dad was pretty great as far as I was concerned: Decades later, I still remember jumping off the couch each night when I saw the headlights of his car pan across our family-room window as he turned into the driveway. I would race the dog to see who could get to the garage door first.

But for three weeks a year, almost every year of my life, my father became Vacation Dad. Vacation Dad was Regular Dad unshackled. Suddenly, he was Clark Griswold, only with a better car, leading us on a crazy whirlwind trip. I’m not talking about some all-inclusive beach vacation: These were real adventures, with itineraries like Beyoncé’s tour schedule — seven cities in 16 days, crisscrossing foreign countries in trains, cars and planes. Giant meals, side trips, no vaguely compelling sight left unseen. (I highly recommend Paestum, Italy, the buffalo mozzarella capital of the world, by the way.)

These trips were pretty much the only vacation days my dad took for the year, so he was going to make them count. He spent months planning every detail, mapping out routes, booking hotels, reserving cars, securing tickets. He had a library of Fodor’s and Michelin books, with notes scribbled in the margins, restaurants circled and page corners folded down. He practically needed a suitcase just for the maps. Even now, in the age of GPS, map-folding remains a revered skill in my family.

And while he might have approached planning these vacations the way he approached his job, Vacation Dad was nothing like Regular Dad.

On these trips, my dad wasn’t busy. He was fearless and adventurous and impulsive. He was silly. Up for anything. He wasn’t just miles away from his corner office; he was on another planet — a rare emotional freedom that cleared the way for mishaps so ridiculous, they felt like outtakes from one of those Hangover movies.

Our vacation stories became my family’s gospel. We never tire of telling them. (My husband might have a different opinion about hearing them.) Most of them are car-related, since my dad had no qualms about driving his family and mountains of luggage in a rented stick-shift through the one-lane, one-way, nonsensical streets of small medieval towns and chaotic big cities all over Europe. We banged up a few vehicles along the way, had close encounters with oceanside cliffs, maybe clipped a few bikers over the years. (No injuries, though.) There were flights on small aircraft basically held together with duct tape; once, somewhere in Russia, we boarded a plane through the cargo hold. There was also an overnight train trip that involved climbing through a window so as not to miss our stop.

My dad, who spent most of his workdays in board meetings and negotiating with unions, spent his vacations going to absurd lengths to entertain the rest of us. In Africa, he pretended to speak Swahili. He would fake taking photos when tourists asked, and was known to give wrong directions, delivered with confidence. He would haggle with street vendors and yell at taxi drivers as if he was a local. Ice cream after lunch and dinner was mandatory. He fell into a lagoon once, but managed to save the bag with our camera in it, popping out of the water and shouting “I’m okay!” to a cheering crowd. Another time, he spontaneously jumped into a pond simply to save my mini-golf ball.

As a young girl, I loved that my dad tapped into this side of himself. Now, as a working parent, I’m in awe that he was able to. He, more than anyone in my family, needed a recharge — something like that all-inclusive beach vacation — but instead, he worked so hard to make sure we all had fun. Yes, he was showing me and my brother the world, which was amazing — but more than that, he was forcing an experience, creating a family adventure that would keep us bonded until the next family adventure. It wasn’t always pretty, but for every second of every day of those trips, we were together.

Eventually, these family expeditions were replaced by grown-up life: My brother and I went off to college, had kids of our own. But three years ago, my dad decided to bring the tradition back. With grandkids of varying ages, the scope and ambition of these trips have changed, but the surprises haven’t. Nor has the work he does planning them — although thankfully, with the advent of the iPhone, there are far fewer maps. This summer, we’ll be driving all over L.A. in a ridiculous eight-passenger van. Dad will be at the wheel.

Bikers, beware.

Published as “And Now, A Moment for Our Dads” in the June issue of Philadelphia magazine.