Recently I did a little reporting from Kenya and Tanzania before taking a safari with my family. We stayed in seven camps. Some were relatively simple, without electricity or running water. Some were relatively luxurious, with regular showers and even pools.
Josh Haner/The New York Times
The simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables. At one camp we got to play soccer with the staff on a vast field in the Serengeti before an audience of wildebeests. At another camp, we had impromptu spear-throwing and archery competitions with the kitchen staff. Two of the Maasai guides led my youngest son and me on spontaneous mock hunts — stalking our “prey” on foot through ravines and across streams. I can tell you that this is the definition of heaven for a 12-year-old boy, and for someone with the emotional maturity of one.
The more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel.
I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.
It occurred to me that when we moved from a simple camp to a more luxurious camp, we crossed an invisible Haimish Line. The simpler camps had it, the more comfortable ones did not.
This is a generalized phenomenon, which applies to other aspects of life. Often, as we spend more on something, what we gain in privacy and elegance we lose in spontaneous sociability.
I once visited a university that had a large, lavishly financed Hillel House to serve as a Jewish center on campus. But the students told me they preferred the Chabad House nearby, which was run by the orthodox Lubavitchers. At the Chabad house, the sofas were tattered and the rooms cramped, but, the students said, it was more haimish.
Restaurants and bars can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. At some diners and family restaurants, people are more comfortable leaning back, laughing loud, interrupting more and sweeping one another up in a collective euphoria. They talk more to the servers, and even across tables. At nicer restaurants, the food is better, the atmosphere is more refined, but there is a tighter code about what is permissible.
Hotels can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. You’ll find multiple generations at a Comfort Inn breakfast area, and people are likely to exchange pleasantries over the waffle machine. At a four-star hotel’s breakfast dining room, people are quietly answering e-mail on their phones.
Whole neighborhoods can exist on either side of the Haimish Line. Alan Ehrenhalt once wrote a great book called “The Lost City,” about the old densely packed Chicago neighborhoods where kids ran from home to home, where people hung out on their stoops. When the people in those neighborhoods made more money, they moved out to more thinly spaced suburbs with bigger homes where they were much less likely to know their neighbors.
In the 1990s, millions of Americans moved outward so they could have bigger houses and bigger lots, even if it meant long commutes. Research by Robert Frank of Cornell suggests this is usually a bad trade-off.
People are often bad at knowing how to spend their money — I’ve been at least as bad as everybody else in this regard. Lottery winners, for example, barely benefit from their new fortunes. When we get some extra income, we spend it on privacy, space and refinement. This has some obvious benefits: let’s not forget the nights at the Comfort Inn when we were trying to fall asleep while lacrosse teams partied in the hallways and the rooms next door. But suddenly we look around and we’re on the wrong side of the Haimish Line.
We also live in a highly individualistic culture. When we’re shopping for a vacation we’re primarily thinking about Where. The travel companies offer brochures showing private beaches and phenomenal sights. But when you come back from vacation, you primarily treasure the memories of Who — the people you met from faraway places, and the lives you came in contact with.
I can’t resist concluding this column with some kernels of consumption advice accumulated by the prominent scholars Elizabeth W. Dunn, Daniel T. Gilbert and Timothy D. Wilson. Surveying the vast literature of happiness research, they suggest: Buy experiences instead of things; buy many small pleasures instead of a few big ones; pay now for things you can look forward to and enjoy later.
To which I’d only add: Sometimes it's best to spend carefully so you can stay south of the Haimish Line.