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FAMILY-GET-AWAY-FROM-IT-ALL IS A LUXURY TO BE CHERISHED

When I was a child, my family took the same vacation every summer to visit my father's relatives in Pennsylvania. We would always leave Chicago at the crack of dawn. My two brothers and I would pile into the back seat of whichever land barge my father was driving and immediately begin arguing about who got to sit where.

As the oldest, and as one who felt carsick at even the sight of a moving car, I would try to claim most of the seat. When I was old enough to get an allowance, I resorted to bribery, promising to pay my brothers a dollar each if they would let me lie down during the trip.There was nothing exotic or luxurious about these vacations. My father drove for hours on end, my mother relieving him for brief spells so that we could cover 750 miles without spending the night in a motel. We played word games using license tags and road signs. We took breaks at roadside restaurants and turnpike rest stops. And we often detoured onto side roads to visit historic sites.

Although I complained, especially as a teenager, about spending endless hours in the car, I loved those trips.

Even now, I can shut my eyes and see my father driving through the night or my mother laying out a picnic at the side of the road.

And when we arrived at my grandfather's lake cottage, there were long games of pinochle, swimming, fishing in the Susquehanna River and walks through the countryside.

Today, it seems harder for people to take such simple family vacations. Although vacation travel is up this year because of a stronger economy, too many parents can't afford to take even a few days off.

Others travel but never really get away. With fax machines, cellular phones, pagers and laptop computers, work stays with them even if they are halfway around the world.

When Chelsea was a little girl, we often took vacations by car. We carried lots of tapes with stories to share and songs to sing together. And, unlike my father, we stopped at motels to sleep.

I also miss the easy, carefree vacations I took as a student. When I was 25 years old, I traveled abroad for the first time. Over the next 15 years, Bill and I went four more times. I will always remember the wonder I felt touring the lake country in England, visiting Guernica in Spain, wandering through Paris and exploring the great monuments and museums of Italy.

Of course, taking vacation is not so simple for me these days. Traveling as First Family means traveling heavy: We can't go anywhere without dozens of staff and security people. And it's hard to sneak in and out of town on Air Force One. Worst of all, our security requirements inevitably disrupt the places we visit.

The best part is that my mother and daughter have been able to join us for some wonderful trips. When we went last year to Latvia, Poland, Germany, Italy, France and England, I watched enviously as they spent their days shopping, sightseeing and dropping into restaurants for pasta, pirogi and pastries without ever being noticed. Then again, I had more fun than my husband, who can never go anywhere without a crowd swarming around him.

I have always admired the European approach to vacations. The first time I traveled there in late summer, I was surprised to find that all the shops were closed. Everyone - from construction worker to prime minister - was away on vacation.

It's not that the Europeans don't work as hard as we do. It's just that vacation is ingrained in their culture. It's understood that time off is vital to one's spirit, family and work life.

When I accompany my husband to meetings with foreign heads of state, I am often asked about our vacation plans.

I remember once explaining to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that we were hoping to get a few days off later in the year. He was going to spend a rejuvenating month in the forest.

Jacques Chirac, the new president of France, told me that he had spent a recent vacation exploring the countryside of Japan. British Prime Minister John Major often blocks off the whole month of August for vacation.

Right now, our family is beginning a two-week vacation in Wyoming. It's a place where the three of us can take long hikes, visit Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, swim and fish. (And I'm sure my husband will manage to play some golf!) The time away will give us moments like the ones I remember from earlier years with my family.

The only problem is: The phone, fax and laptop are on vacation with us.