“How do you deal with fights with your husband while you’re traveling?” It was the first question asked by a member of a book club I was Skyping with last week, discussing my latest memoir, Adventures of a Railway Nomad, about our three-month train odyssey. “You don’t write about any arguments in your book, but there must have been some.”
As it happens, Rich and I are both blessed with easygoing temperaments, but yes, of course there were the odd moments of disagreement and discord during our 83 days on the road. But during our 31 years together, we’ve worked out strategies that help us avoid allowing minor differences to escalate into major explosions. These strategies may not work for everyone, but they make it a lot easier for us to live and travel together amicably.
1. Discuss trip parameters in advance. Do you want a vacation or an adventure? Are you dreaming of five star hotels or funky Airbnb apartments in the bohemian quarter? Would you prefer to take it slow and easy or see everything you can possibly cram in? As familiar as we are with each other’s travel styles, Rich and I always spend at least one evening, preferably in a congenial pub with low lighting and good wine, refining our vision for the trip.
2. Debate issues on their merits. Rich and I have this crazy idea that if you each lay out the facts as you see them, often you’ll arrive quite naturally at a mutually agreeable solution. Say you’re in Bari, Italy, trying to decide whether to take the ferry to Croatia, Albania, or Greece. A little Internet research about each destination, some honesty about your preferences, a bit of give and take, and you’re likely to be on your way. On the other hand, you may be stuck in Bari forever if the discussion involves rehashing every controversial decision you two ever made about home equity loans, the kids’ education, and that investment in your old school chum’s start-up. Sort out the ferry on its own merits; rake over the past later if you must.
3. Agree to respect a veto. If one of us is keen to do something and the other cannot abide the idea, we agree from the outset that the veto will be the deciding vote. One person’s whim shouldn’t force the other to do something truly excruciating. For instance, last time we were in Boston, I was mildly curious to see the new Frost Ice Loft, the world’s largest permanent bar built entirely of ice. However, it struck Rich as a gimmicky tourist trap, and he wanted nothing to do with it. A veto allowed us to break the impasse without a fuss and move on. Vetoes should be rare occurrences; if they become frequent, it’s time to revisit point #1.
4. Allow each other the occasional beastly spasm. In an old Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, the famous sleuth makes a mildly infelicitous remark to his love interest, then instantly retracts it, saying, “I beg your pardon. It was a beastly spasm. Won’t happen again.” He gracefully defined the moment as a personal lapse — a reflection of his own failings, not Harriet's. Now, when one of us utters a cranky remark we know to be unfair and uncalled for, it can be annulled and forgotten by simply saying, “Sorry. Beastly spasm.” It’s a sort of linguistic “no harm, no foul” ruling.
5. Accept setbacks with as much grace as you can muster. A wise reader once wrote me, “Never chase a missed train … get a pastry and wait for the next one.” In a crisis, often the only sensible thing to do is regroup over coffee and pastry until your perspective is restored and you're ready to cope. This goes double when the crisis is your companion's fault. Did you miss the train because somebody took too long in the shower or got confused about the schedule? Then you have the high moral ground; don't squander it by throwing a hissy fit. Be nice. The other person will feel guiltier and try harder to do better in the future.
6. Rest when you’re tired. Traveling is fun but it’s also hard physical, mental, and spiritual work. Pressing on when you're exhausted and overwhelmed can turn the trip into a series of beastly spasms, arbitrary vetoes, and ad hominem attacks. What fun is that? When you feel yourself flagging, suggest taking a break. If your companion is eager to carry on, let him or her go solo for a few hours while you relax with a book on the beach or the porch of your B&B.
Traveling with others makes us up our game, often calling forth greater strength, patience, and generosity of spirit than we believe we possess. We are reminded that the people we love don’t have to be perfect to be convivial comrades, and that luckily, no one in their right mind will expect us to be flawless either. Our faults and imperfections make us who we are, lead us into adventures, and send us home changed in ways that will linger long after the photos are posted, the laundry is washed and folded, and the suitcases are stashed in the attic, awaiting the next journey.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain, to which I've just returned after a 16-month absence due to the pandemic.
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