Holiday camps for grown-ups are booming. Combining nostalgia and a cellphone ban, they offer a retreat for stressed-out adults. Our reporter struggles to unleash his inner child.
From here on in I’m expected to shrug off who I am. The woman at the welcome desk forces me to choose a new name and whips out a list of suggestions. I pick Mars. “Good choice. Like the chocolate bar,” she says. “No, like the planet,” says her colleague. “Um, no: like the god of war,” I think to myself, but refrain from sharing this. I sign in my photographer, who is wandering around the camp, as Venus. I have a premonition that these will be the small pleasures I will treasure over the next few days. The woman, who calls herself Funny, slips my smartphone into a paper bag and I am allowed to enter. I step across a meadow scattered with guests who appear to have arrived years ago and never left, and approach the bungalows. The air is ripe with the smell of damp towels, sun oil and late summer. My photographer bags his bed. So here we are, Mars and Venus, the god of war and the goddess of love, at Camp Breakout in Süsel on the Baltic coast, an hour’s drive north of Hamburg.
Here, the camp promises, adults are allowed to be children again. They also promise a digital detox camp where you can “break free of everyday stress” and “have fun – just like when you were young.” Outside, Maike Engel, the camp founder who goes by the name Chief, bangs a bell to call us to dinner, which is spaghetti Bolognese.
Digital detox is a concept that comes from the U.S. The perma-stressed denizens of Silicon Valley obviously dream of casting off their devices, abandoning their phones, PCs and tablets and becoming human again, not just a cog in the digital machine. The trend has since spread around the world. Anyone who wants to be modern goes offline – for ten minutes, ten hours, ten days. Now, the phenomenon has caught on among Germany’s middle classes – in the village of Süsel on the Baltic Coast. The problem is: Süsel isn’t Mendocino …
We sit in a circle and introduce ourselves. Apart from us journalists, who are really here to explore the deep-seated desires of others, the circle includes Jan, 78, the oldest camper, who has either misunderstood or is boycotting the name principle, as his badge says “Jan”; Benni, 21 and the youngest, is out of work and accompanied by his dad, Rolf, a marketing guy who wants us to call him Road Runner. Matthias, aka Fortune Cookie, drove seven hours from Koblenz and is wearing rain pants despite the sunshine. There are a few yoga girls – Cloud, Rascal, Shooting Star and Elf – who move in a giggling collective. Then there are the bald guys in a tent who, rather likeably, clutch cans of beer at all hours of the day.
So what exactly are these people looking for? And what will they find? The evening brings the reassurance that there are still rules, even if we’re all kids again. The table has to be cleared, trash collected and any talk of your job is prohibited. But because this isn’t enough to conjure up the halcyon days of our youth, Glow gets out her ukulele. In her day job, Glow crochets wedding dresses; now she’s singing cheesy folk songs about freedom above the clouds. When the first members of the group start hugging, I slope off to the kitchen to buy a bottle of white wine and three lagers, dropping my coins in the honesty box. The organizers know that even if we’re recreating our teenage years, we can still handle a couple of glasses of booze. But perhaps we’re drinking to remember what we were like back then: carefree and primordially happy. The Chief tells us about the time a camper got completely legless; the following day, a TV team came and filmed his hangover. Not something I want to emulate. But on the other hand, I have to get drunk or I’ll get a hangover from the camp. I peer out the window and spot Jan limping past into the darkness.
As a child, there was nothing to worry about a camp – except sunburn
Next morning, I oversleep and miss the Body and Mindset Workout given by Marilena, who wants us to call her Miss Gratitude and – as she confided to the group – dreams of becoming a keynote speaker. I bump into Road Runner at the Polaroid Tree and ask him about his expectations for the camp. “Serenity,” he replies with a grand gesture. “There was never anything to worry about at camp. An unrequited crush and sunburn – nothing more dramatic.” Rosehip shouts from the beanbag: “Just switch off!” Blue looks up from the course schedule and adds, “The camp is a fertile breeding ground for great conversation! Out in the real world, everyone is playing a role, pretending. Not here, though.”
The three are not alone in this opinion: Everyone here loves everything here. The campers are as happy – and as uncritical – as kids. Which leaves me: Either I can’t or I’m refusing to give in; my inner child just doesn’t want to play. Perhaps because I actually enjoy being an adult and don’t really miss my childhood? I set out to explore the camp, strolling past signs in English that point to the “Chillout Area,” “Bonfire Place” or the “Secret Garden.” None of the Anglicisms can conceal the fact that we’re at a Protestant youth center that usually takes preschool classes. The 30-something yoga girls have pinned band posters to the door of the bungalow to add nostalgia to the camp experience. I applaud them mentally for their meticulous preparation.
An entire market has sprung up around adults craving to be children. Catchily titled the Peter Pan industry, it includes camps, school discos, craft classes, indoor climbing halls and coloring books. An article in the American Journal of Play attests the benefits of playfulness: stress reduction, greater academic and – I kid you not – reproductive success. I have a suspicion that the urge to provide a scientific justification for this infantilization stems from the fear of not being taken seriously.
On the second day, there’s no sign of any reproductive activity in the camp, although I do observe some flirting. It’s still fairly covert: jokes that no one else finds funny, but which reduce two people to hysterics; hands that touch briefly, as if by accident. Chief Maike interrupts the college romanticism by announcing that a boat has capsized in the lake. The wet canoeists crawl back up the shore, fused by this shared adventure. The camp picks up speed – for the others. I, on the other hand, seem to do everything wrong: I talk too much about my job, reveal my real name, ask if I can use Spotify, and in the seclusion of my bungalow even surf the Internet on the iPad I smuggled in like a junkie bringing in his stash. The only thing I excel at is the afternoon archery class: My arrows fly straight to the target. Nobody needs to know that my imaginary target was Schrödinger, the token hippie who has locked himself in the teepee next to the archery field along with copious quantities of incense. Thick curls of cinnamon-scented smoke waft from his retreat.
I am not the only one to suffer a digital relapse. Close to the hammocks, I overhear a conversation between Pluto, Watson and Banana Boy. “I checked Whatsapp earlier,” admits Pluto. “I posted something – I had to!,” exclaims Watson. Banana Boy whispers: “Wow, the network here is really good: LTE speed.” Then they chat about their horrible bosses and unfair salaries. It illustrates the difficulty Camp Breakout faces in picking its core focus. It seems to want to be a bit of everything, and fails to be one thing entirely. Ultimately, it offers a mix of Junior Woodchucks, Scientology and a dating service, which isn’t bad as such, but it doesn’t live up to the camp’s self-proclaimed vision.
In the evening, back at the campfire, with wine, the ukulele and a fresh sunburn, I grab the Chief. Maike worked in advertising, handling sizable budgets until she’d had enough. She quit her job, backpacked around Asia and came up with the idea for the camp in Bali. “I’m super communicative, will chat to anyone and never skipped a party,” says Maike, apropos of nothing. The camps are expensive and not always fully booked, and she picks up the shortfall. It’s a high price to pay to allow others to be children again.
I’ve had enough, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual. I break out of Camp Breakout and depart the following morning, with my photographer, who spent a lot of the time staring at the ceiling in silent desperation. As Süsel vanishes into the distance, I abandon Mars and slip back into my own skin and into my agreeably digital, fabulously adult world. If this sense of appreciation for what I have is my sole takeaway from the camp, I can live with that. But, I think to myself, perhaps I should take up archery. I’m good at it, a lot better than I was as a child.
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