The hippie commune holiday is back

Not long ago, my brother Peter announced his new resolution to “impose on people more” when travelling. Politeness, or a fear of “putting people out”, had prevented him from seeing far-flung friends and family on a handful of trips – and when politeness stops us seeing the people we love, politeness is a problem.

Sometimes, with a jam-packed holiday itinerary or a busy work trip, it is only by imposing on people that we get to spend time with them – by sleeping on their sofa, asking for a lift to the airport or suggesting they show us around the historic district or market on our one free evening.

This summer, I am pleased to see that most British travellers have abandoned any pretence of politeness and pulled in all the favours. I’m writing this from my friend Gemma’s spare room in Edinburgh, where I have spent the whole of August, happily imposing on her and her boyfriend Cameron. They have loved being imposed upon, too; I dragged them to countless Fringe shows and helped Cameron with his fair trade coffee company website. We ate together, cycled all over the city together and brainstormed work ideas together – and our August hippy homeshare has genuinely felt like a holiday.

Meanwhile, my flat in Margate is occupied by London-dwelling friends who were desperate for a bit of sea air, doing much the same thing. It’s not just child-free millennials opting for home swap and homeshare holidays, either; most of my friends with kids have formed temporary childcare cooperatives with other families, or decamped to the homes of grandparents, aunts, uncles and other budget babysitters.

We can explain our rediscovery of “hippy commune” holidays in unsentimental terms: many Airbnbs and hotels were booked up in April by the very rich and very organised. Sharing homes or staying with friends also offers a more affordable holiday, and many of us still feel on shaky ground financially. But it’s not all down to expediency.

I used to be the sort of traveller who claimed to “like my own space”, a euphemistic phrase, really, for an introvert ferociously attached to their own routines. Well, guess what? I’ve had quite enough of my own routines, solitude, silence and whatever else I used to fastidiously safeguard “my own space” for. This summer, it is connection, community and cosy familiarity that I crave the most.

This social shift towards homeshares, house swaps, multi-generational holidays and childcare-sharing is heartening, because I know that previous generations were much more accustomed to imposing on each other – on holiday and in life. I grew up in a household that regularly welcomed short and long-term international visitors. It might have been a doctor my mum had worked with at an eye clinic in Tanzania when she was 22, or a visiting Australian pastor my dad knew through the church. I loved this steady stream of visitors at our family home in Belfast, and I always hoped to adopt a similar open-doors policy with my own home.

But travel became cheap and commonplace, and we all began to be obsessed with how “busy” we are. And so my generation of travellers ended up more nuclear, more independent, and more fearful of causing someone “hassle”, as if hassle is the worst thing that can ever happen. (Now we know that a much worse thing than “hassle” is a global pandemic that drives us all indoors, shuts borders and separates us from friends and family.) Over the past decade, I became increasingly shy about asking to stay with friends, because it seemed simpler and more deferential to book an affordable Airbnb around the corner. The so-called “sharing economy” – peer-to-peer services such as Airbnb and Uber – offers travellers convenience. But the unfettered ubiquity of ride shares, home rentals and tours led by locals also weakened our ability to ask for favours. Which means we miss out on opportunities to connect with old friends, learn more about the local culture or simply enjoy the comfort of a home-cooked meal.

Now, after a year of anxiety, isolation and monotony, none of us is shy about asking people to help us have a holiday. And returning the favour, helping others to have a holiday, feels like the grandest of gestures, an act of benevolence. Because right now, few things feel more precious than a holiday.

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