On the Spanish island of Mallorca, there’s a four-mile-long beach full of Germans and a TV host who looks like a cross between the young Donny Osmond and Tony Soprano. The host is carrying a blackboard with white chalk letters asking Macht urlaub blöd? (Does vacation make you stupid?). A film crew trails him as he passes howling groups of partiers slurping sangria through three-foot-long straws from red plastic buckets. The groups are partitioned from each other with yellow police tape, and some of the revelers recline on enormous rubber ducks. It’s mid-afternoon, and no one but the TV host seems sober.
This is the Playa de Palma, known in Germany as Ballermann, a six-month-long spring break-like bacchanal in the Mediterranean sand.
Across the street from the beach, bars decorated with Bavarian flags and Spaten beer signs line the sidewalk. My German friend Mark and I enter a place called Mega Park, a beer garden the size of a football field surrounded by a turreted, faux castle. On each castle wall, a winking, red-bearded king holds a soft pretzel in one hand and an overflowing stein of beer in the other. Beneath him, the word BIERKAISER is stenciled in white. The air reeks of French fries and last night’s spilled beer.
We order glasses of sangria from an unnaturally tan, bleach-blonde German waitress. Twenty-something German guys in matching purple sport-club jerseys surround us. They’re singing hits about sun, sex, and sangria from the musical genre also called Ballermann, named after the German bastardization of the Spanish word balneario (seaside resort).
More than three-quarters of the people in Mega Park are men, even those handing out fliers for “Super Lesbian Porn Night” in the Paradies Beach Disco. I ask Mark why he thinks this is.
“There are always more men than women in such places because men are more notgeil” (desperately horny), Mark says.
The precise economy of the German language not only distinguishes degrees of sexual need. It also differentiates kinds of time separate from everyday life. Ferien is generally a public holiday with no work or school. Urlaub is a period of time away from home on vacation.
In every corner of Rhode Island-sized Mallorca, Germans talk about and do urlaub in a serious way. Two-hour discount flights from all over Germany help make the island Germans’ most popular vacation destination. Nearly ten million tourists a year visit Mallorca. Of them, about one third is German, making almost four German tourists for every Mallorcan.
Among them are my friend Mark and his extended family, who share a vacation house in a resort town called Santa Ponça. In the 1950s, when Germans started flocking to Mallorca, local developers imported sand to make a wide, white beach at the head of a narrow bay and carved the town out of scrubland behind it. Now, Santa Ponça hosts a German school, a Deutsche Bank, German housecleaning and landscaping businesses, bakeries that make dark and seedy German bread, and a clinic with German specialists in everything from plastic surgery to gastrointestinal problems. These serve a colony of vacation homes exploding on a conical hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Fifteen years ago, the house that Mark’s family shares stood practically alone on this hill. Today, black BMWs and Mercedes with license plates from Essen and Frankfurt line streets spiraling around rows of lemon-yellow villas.
The newer the villa, the more ostentatious it is. Just down the hill from Mark’s family’s house, alabaster, life-size statues of lions front one gated, three-story villa surrounded by twenty-foot palms. Security cameras scan the bougainvillea-laced, empty sidewalks. The entire hill feels like a luxury ghost-town. Mark tells me that at least half of the houses in the neighborhood have always been vacant in the more than a dozen times he has come to Santa Ponça.
When Mark invited me to join him, his partner Anja, and their two-year-old daughter Lilli in Mallorca, I imagined days of sitting on a beach and reading novels. I would spend my evenings watching soccer on TV in open-air bars sipping sweating cervezas. It would be the self-indulgent vacation I had never indulged in.
Like many travelers who fancy themselves different than run-of-the-mill tourists, I’ve long been suspicious of the typical vacation’s value. I don’t seek luxury or the accoutrements of home in distant places. I seek the details of what Irish poet Seamus Heaney once called “otherwhere”: a place that’s not just the evasion suggested by the word elsewhere but one that’s occupied by presences of its own.
Vacation—whether on the beach, the ski slopes, or a cruise ship—has always seemed to me the opposite: it wants nothing but to be left alone. It’s an ideal of transformative escape rather than travel as a way of engaging the world. But Mark’s invitation to Mallorca made me realize that despite country-hopping most of my adult life, I haven’t really tried such an escape—not with all the beachy trappings of a resort destination like Mallorca, anyway. So I’m envisioning my two weeks on the island as a personal experiment with vacation. Will I be changed by two weeks in the sun? Or just slide into a cerveza-induced stupor?
“What the fuck is that?” a pale teenage boy sitting behind me on the bus in Palma—Mallorca’s largest city—asks with a distinctly Northern Irish accent.
“Some fuckin’ building,” a gelled-haired buddy replies.
“The University of Palma?” asks a girl across the aisle.
“I think it’s the cathedral,” the girl next to her adds.
She’s right. Palma’s pale sandstone, Gothic cathedral rises above the sea like a many-spired ship. It’s one of the most graceful churches I’ve ever seen.
But this flip-flopped crew isn’t as impressed. They are impressed, however, by the generic Irish bars the bus passes on Palma’s harbor-side strip: “Look! The Shamrock Bar!”
And by the fact that one of them fancies Teutons: “Sinéad likes to say hi to Germans!”
These teenagers, like all the other tourists I witness in my first week on the island, appear confident that only members of their group understand what they’re saying. It’s as if vacationers—whether they’re speaking English, German, Danish, or Italian—imagine themselves in invitation-only greenhouses wherever they go that let in the sun but filter out all the strangers around them.
I first noticed this a few days before at a beach. A balding Englishman playing volleyball hit the ball astray toward three topless, Spanish twenty-somethings, and all the men he was playing with hollered, “I’ll get it!”
From country to country, I carry the notion that travel makes people more self-reflective, which in turn makes the world more democratic. Not democratic in the sense of one person / one vote representative democracy. Democratic in a more direct sense: opportunities for unmediated encounters with people different than you—moments that push you to acknowledge and reshape your unexamined assumptions about everything from what time of day to eat to whether newspapers should be balanced and objective.
“To me, the beauty of travel comes in dissolving one’s judgments,” Pico Iyer writes in his essay “When Worlds Collide.”
But when I overhear conversations like the one on the bus, I wonder if I’m overly optimistic about travel’s impetus for self-reflection. Vacation doesn’t necessarily require knowledge of the place you visit, encounters with people who live there, or even conversations with other tourists.
Another moment affirms my growing sense that just because a Mallorca vacation brings people from different countries together doesn’t mean that it creates cross-cultural understanding. On the veranda of Santa Ponça’s Bar Avenida one evening early in my stay, Mark and I watch Spain play the United States in soccer. The mostly Spanish clientele eat plates of fried calamari and grumble about their countrymen’s missed shots on goal. A Scottish guy with a shaved head lines up empty pint glasses on the table next to us. His belly bulges over white soccer shorts.
When a U.S. player roughly springs into a Spanish player, the Scottish guy shouts, “Asshole. Typical American.”
I’m relieved to be speaking German with Mark, who helped teach me the language when I lived with his family as a high school exchange student. Yet I wonder if the Scottish guy would have cursed Americans if I were speaking American English at the table next to him. The invitation-only greenhouse of language again: multicultural vacationland intensifies a sense of safe anonymity.
The next day, Mark and I idle on a park bench behind Santa Ponça’s packed beach. The midday sun casts a shimmery heat over the blue Mediterranean. Above us, hundreds of squawking green-backed parakeets cruise with sticks in their beaks through bushy-topped pines.
“The parakeets all have apartment houses,” Mark says.
The birds’ communal nests remind me, too, of the look-alike holiday apartment blocks and hotels surrounding us on three sides.
Occasionally, a parakeet lands near us and clacks its beak, wanting to be fed. I wonder if this is how we tourists look to the locals. The parakeets are foreigners, as well, originally from South America, which explains why they suit Santa Ponça’s faux-South-Seas feel.
While we watch the birds, a menagerie of Europeans ambles to and from the beach: smoking Italian couples, sullen Danish fathers pushing baby carriages, and shirtless Russian boys in tight Speedos and black bandanas. Level-lipped, they all stare straight ahead, pretending not to notice each other.
Maybe as a North American Midwesterner, I wrongly associate smiles and friendliness with being happy. I ask Mark—whose leanness and open expression make him look much younger than his thirty-five years—about the lack of friendliness, or even mutual acknowledgement, I observe among vacationers in Mallorca.
“Why would people want to say hi to each other?” Mark says. “What should they do, walk around greeting everyone? It’s impossible. There are too many people here.”
I can’t argue with Mark about the overwhelming number of tourists. In the month I arrive in Mallorca, so do at least one million other visitors in planes that descend every five minutes over the high-rise hotels flanking the Bay of Palma. In summer, these visitors make the Palma airport one of Europe’s busiest.
The social cohesion among such a crowd arises not from communication but from a pattern of movement that repeats itself around the island every day: hotel→beach→restaurant→beach→hotel→restaurant→bar→hotel.
What these places look like depends on how much money their patrons have. The more money, the wilder and quieter the beach. And the bars and restaurants range from the bratwurst-fueled Mega Park to a rock-walled inn with a ninety-five Euro tasting menu of foie gras, sweetbreads, and apple.
Though different notions of vacation compete for people and space in Mallorca, everywhere I hear the word urlaub.
In the back seat of the Volkswagen Golf that Mark and Anja use to get around the island, Anja tells their daughter Lilli that, “You’re allowed to do things on urlaub that you wouldn’t do at home.”
I’m sure Anja means something different than the Ballermann partier the German-language newspaper Mallorca Zeitung quotes saying, “What happens on urlaub must stay in urlaub.”
For precocious Lilli, urlaub means the family house in Santa Ponça. “Das Urlaubshaus,” she calls it. It’s the only place she has known vacation, so she naturally conflates the house and the experience, which for her mostly means no kindergarten, fluctuating bedtimes, and most importantly, more ice cream and gummi bears than usual.
Such holiday luxuries cause Lilli to persistently refuse to sleep at night on Mallorca. In this way, she shares something with the revelers on the Ballermann beach.
It’s easy to chastise vacationers for their willful self-indulgences. And to take shots at how tourism has ruined landscapes by re-organizing them around visitors’ brazen desires. I suspect, though, that an even more profound and destructive folly lurks beneath vacation’s veneer: self-delusion.
Why does anyone want to get away? In part, at least, to become more like the vision of one’s true self by escaping everyday life. The hope for change drives vacation, like any good story. But to reduce anyone to a story is to make them a resolved conflict. And the resolution of change—or even just a small epiphany—sometimes arrives, if ever, long after a respite from workaday rhythms. Maybe tourists in Mallorca fleeing rainy Northern Europe most profoundly appreciate the island’s endless summer sun only when they return to the clouds and showers. This sparks a longing that starts the cycle of escape and return all over again.
Anja speaks of this longing for Mallorca while we sit on a restaurant veranda overlooking Cala de Deiá, the cobblestone cove English writer Robert Graves once called “inaccessible to the mass-tourist.” Translucent, turquoise water stretches into the distance behind Anja’s strawberry-blonde-framed face.
“I used to think it was awful how much Germans talk about their next urlaub, how they think urlaub will transform their lives,” Anja says.
This focus on vacation is perhaps one consequence of the fact that the average German worker gets thirty-five paid days off a year. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Germans spend more money on international travel than any other nationality in the world. I’ve met German tourists in more than twenty countries on four continents.
Now, at thirty-five, Anja’s view of Germans’ attitudes toward vacation has softened. In addition to mothering, she’s training to be a psychotherapist in Hamburg, Germany’s darkest and wettest city. She, too, desires time away to rejuvenate from the city’s dreariness and her tightly-scheduled life. Anja also sees this desire in her clients, who often get depressed when they return from an urlaub they’ve been planning for months, only to find their lives feel empty. “They still face the same problems,” Anja says.
In an antique, narrow-gauge train about to depart from the tourist town of Sóller, I sit on a bench of varnished, wooden slats behind a German couple. The woman is tall, big-boned, with blonde, shaggy hair. The man is taller yet, wearing a pastel-blue polo with its collar turned-up.
On the platform outside my open window, a short, chubby woman breaks the train car’s quiet, breathing heavily and shrieking, “Lesli! Lesli!” at a teenage girl running through the street below.
“I told you, you should run ahead and buy the tickets,” the breathless woman shouts in German, scolding the girl when she reaches the platform.
Squirming, the tall blonde woman ahead of me mocks the late woman on the platform: “Are we on urlaub or not?”
In broken English, the late woman on the platform begs the conductor to hold the train while she buys the tickets, which he does.
Then the man ahead of me chimes in dismissively: “That’s how I imagine urlaub, wonderfully stressful.”
Who’s more on vacation, I wonder, the woman who’s stressed about missing the train or the couple irritated about the woman being stressed?
Silence reigns on the rocky beach of Port de Sóller, until an overweight woman wades into the water with a boy in her arms and shouts in a Long Island accent, “You will not get another bit of chocolate this entire trip if you don’t sit down right now!”
She wants her son, who’s wearing orange floatation devices on both arms, to sit in the plastic boat she’s holding with her other hand.
“What do you think is going to happen to you here?” the mom continues. Her black, one-piece swimsuit is half-submerged in the water littered with sticks, gull feathers, and a few plastic bottles.
The boy whines, “Can we please go back to shore?”
Meanwhile, his swarthy father in brown, knee-length trunks with white flowers has been on the phone for the first half hour his family has been at the beach.
“Well, I’m not too worried about him. He’s a pretty smooth operator,” he says. I imagine the man he’s talking to in a Manhattan cubicle.
A fishing trawler chugs between the bluffs on both sides of the harbor, swarmed by gulls. Through that gap, thousands of Mallorcans emigrated from the island to Puerto Rico, France, and elsewhere in the late 1800s and early 1900s, fleeing their failed orange crops and vineyards.
Now, someone has flown across an ocean to urge her child to sail into the same harbor in a plastic toy boat. And on the beach, Scandinavian teenagers roast their pallid bodies while reading tabloids about celebrities back home.
“That all beautiful girls are heavily tanned,” Robert Graves claims in Majorca Observed, “was a new idea derived from D.H. Lawrence’s German-inspired sun-cult.” Since Graves wrote, the notion has been extended to men, and its origins in Northern Europe seem verifiable in Mallorca. On the hottest summer afternoons, locals leave the dangerous sun to pasty vacationers.
One of these sunbathers interrupts me reading under an umbrella and asks in German if I would take his picture with his pinkened girlfriend. He doesn’t say please. I take the picture and a few minutes later notice the guy and his girlfriend in their matching red swim trunks and bikini exchanging tongues.
Later, from my seat at a sidewalk café in the rural, sandstone village of Fornalutx, vacation looks more genteel. In the shade of a sycamore tree, German children frolic in a fountain. Local kids on dirt bikes give directions to Spanish tourists. Outside a German-owned Spar grocery store, hikers turn revolving racks of postcards and newspapers flown in from Europe’s capitals.
A middle-aged, German man’s voice floats over everyone, stating urgently on his cell phone, “I have one more day of urlaub.”
His female companion sips a skinny three-dollar glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice (as do I) and reads the German newspaper Die Zeit. When the man ends his phone call, he frowns.
Across the paved plaza, another middle-aged, German couple in flip-flops looks at pictures of properties in the window of Engel & Völkers, a German real estate firm. The properties are new apartments and condos with pastoral views and pools costing from 480,000 Euros to 1.2 million. After looking at the listings, the couple embraces.
The groans, grating, and rattles of cement mixers, saws, and jackhammers mark my Mallorcan days A half-century building binge has made Mallorca one of Spain’s richest places. Though construction slowed during the recent recession, tourism has continued to grow, fueling investment in new malls, luxury hotels, and condos. But according to the Spanish Youth Council, second-home buyers and real estate speculators have made property in Mallorca completely out of reach for native first-time buyers, who wouldn’t even think of looking in places like Santa Ponça.
There, across Gran Via de l’Illa de la Espalmador from Mark’s family’s house, builders work six days a week on a two-story villa surrounded by high, dry stone walls. When I arrive back at the house from the beach one ninety-degree afternoon, I approach a curly-haired man with coffee-colored skin stooped on the sidewalk in the shade eating lunch. I had seen him tethered to a catwalk on a crane high above the street the day before.
I say “Hola,” and he returns the greeting, so I continue in Spanish, asking him how the work on the villa across the street is going and when it will be done. He says—in Spanish with a clipped accent that I don’t recognize—that the work is hard, with too much sun, but the house will be done in about six weeks.
“How’s the pay?” I follow.
I ask him if he’s from Mallorca.
The conversation feels like an un-agreed-to interview, and I wish him good luck as I walk through the gate in the wall that divides the house from the street.
Overlooking the Mediterranean—on the other side of the wall that the Moroccan is leaning on—I eat my lunch, Moroccan couscous, which Anja happened to make.
After lunch, I swim in the pool while the Moroccan and his coworkers sweat in the midday sun across the street. His nearby presence haunts me, not because I presume to know how he feels about his work or migrating, but because I hate the obvious disparity between our situations. I can put out of sight the construction site he toils in six days a week simply by closing a gate. I can shelter in a poolside umbrella’s shade anytime I want.
I feel uncomfortable truths I knew more abstractly before: vacation and ignorance go hand-in-hand; luxury and laziness can be tainted by awareness of what and who enables them.
“Whatever its nature may be, the future of the tourist industry is assured, since it fulfils one of man’s basic needs,” Jean-Louis Colas wrote in his 1967 travelogue about Mallorca and its neighboring islands, The Balearics: Islands of Enchantment.
“There is the need to get away from ourselves,” Colas continues, “and at the same time the delight of seeing ourselves in our true proportions, as we must when we lie on a soft sandy beach and know that beyond the headlands, beyond the mountains, there is still the sea.”
This sounds convincing on the surface, but does lying on a beach really provoke insight? Stillness is meditative, but what, if anything, do the sandwiched beachgoers at Santa Ponça see when they witness their “true proportions”? A wish for better weather at home? A body little-used in work and in leisure, too?
I can cynically speculate, but I know the feeling of smallness brought on by seemingly unending water. In my last days at the house in Santa Ponça, I exercise the basic human need to stare into the watery distance more and more. Does this happen because of where I am or because I allow myself time to gaze? Either way, from my poolside perch at sunset, I watch the last light morph and fade for hours over the placid sea.
I watch my fellow vacationers much more, though. Rather than going into myself on vacation, I mostly wonder what others are thinking and if they’re thinking at all. Maybe all the other tourists can clear their minds to create blissful emptiness, and I’ve been missing the vacation boat.
On my penultimate day in Mallorca, I try to shut down my brain by attending a noon organ concert in Palma’s cathedral. While the low chords seem to lift the vaulted ceiling, I lose myself in the forty-foot-wide rose window directly above the altar: the cathedral’s oculus maior (great eye). The six-petaled, red blossom at the window’s center holds my gaze until I willfully avoid it. But interlocking lines and petals keep leading me back to the center rose. I begin to feel more the watched than the watcher and realize that I should have felt this my entire time on the island. By definition, tourists are detached observers, who themselves are the objects of locals’ and migrant workers’ gazes. Mallorca is a spectacle of eyes reflecting each other.
Through an open cathedral door to the outside, I hear bestial “Arghh” sounds from bronzed, muscled men in golden breastplates and loincloths garnished with green and red feathers. I passed them provoking tourists to spare change on my way into the cathedral, as well as painters making portraits of tourists, a classical guitarist finger-picking, and a begging Romany woman saying “Hola” to everyone. Wherever people gather with idle time and money in their pockets, scenes like this coalesce. Who’s looking at whom? And who looks foolish? It depends how the seers see themselves.
Measured by my initial vision of my Mallorcan getaway, my vacation experiment is largely a failure. In two weeks, I haven’t spent more than a few hours at a time on a beach. Instead of watching more soccer or hitting the Ballermann nightclubs, I’ve listened to Mallorcan folk music with old ladies at a church benefit concert. I haven’t read any novels, either.
I have read George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, riveted by the notion that in nearby Barcelona an almost classless, worker-run society existed in the 1930s. Now, Mallorca has perfectly reproduced Western Europe’s class hierarchy on holiday. From the crammed hotels of the working class to the sprawling seaside villas of Claudia Schiffer and other multi-millionaire celebrities, most Europeans’ holiday quarters in Mallorca resemble home with an ocean view. Maybe this is one reason why people like Anja’s German clients get disappointed when they return home and realize their lives haven’t been revolutionized.
Vacation is a one-way street that winds up where you started: snippets of overheard remarks; snapshots of places passed through; “I ♥ Mallorca” T-shirts sold in Santa Ponça, taken back to Germany, and worn back to Mallorca the next year.
To streamline traffic, one-way streets are useful. Vacation, too, has its place. It also has costs, including separation from the people and paved-over land that make it possible. The last thing I see in Mallorca is a massive construction project at the Palma airport expanding one of four concourses to make space for more flights.
Twenty-four hours later, I arrive home in Wisconsin with browner skin, a bigger belly, and renewed friendship with Mark, Anja, and Lilli. Otherwise, I notice little immediate change.
I await any insights that may bubble-up through the reservoir of remembered moments. I prepare myself, though, for a void—the purposelessness I sought in going away. Therein roosts my learning from the labyrinthine nest of vacation. The fact that I ever considered the extravagance of two weeks in Mallorca an experiment is like Santa Ponça’s parakeets squawking for food at tourists’ feet: shameless, but not stupid.