I liken international travel with one’s spouse (especially when not on an organized tour) to an Advanced Placement Exam in Marital Compatibility. And I admit to some apprehension approaching our recent 2-½ week trip to France. My husband and I had not done much foreign travel together, and had certainly not been together, just the two of us, 24/7 for that length of time since our honeymoon in 1988; and even then (1) our honeymoon was not that long and (2) we both still thought the other perfect.
Although I am not a fan of reality TV (so the following comparisons may not be 100% accurate) I was hoping our trip to Paris would be more “The Bachelorette” (those episodes in which starry-eyed couples are whisked away to romantic far-flung scenic locations) and not “Survivor” (where contestants conspire to rid themselves of each other) but maybe a bit of “The Amazing Race” thrown in. Though, with respect to the “The Amazing Race,” which I actually enjoy, I had always been vocal in my opinion that I would much rather be on a team with my son than my husband. My son has a better sense of humor, and I could envision my husband and I being that bickering couple that can’t even agree on how to get the envelope with the next clue open. We can both be rather, um, opinionated.
Indeed, our first few days in Paris were trying. If the journey was an AP Exam for us as a couple, it was a physical endurance test for my husband. For starters, he is very tall, doesn’t particularly like big cities or crowds, and is lactose intolerant. Consequently, he deserves bonus points right off the bat for venturing to the most densely populated city in Europe, where the apartments are so small he could barely fit in the shower with the door closed (much less turn around), and which is chock-full of cheese. Add fatigue, jet lag, inclement weather, and the language barrier to the mix and we had a recipe for disaster brewing. In fact, observing my husband, clearly at first a fish out of water in Paris, I was initially worried that my “dream” trip was headed towards spectacular calamity. The fatigue led to grumpiness and unlike home, where one can simply go to the other side of the house or run errands, there was nowhere to escape each other and those irritating moods, quirks and habits. (Yes, we have discovered some imperfections in each other in the ensuing 25 years.) I have also learned, over the years, that my husband is not a “Gee whiz, we are in Paris and isn’t this swell!” kind of a guy. He will instead often plod through a day impassively and then later declare it a wonderful experience. Accordingly, all I could do was trust that this trip would ultimately prove to be at least retroactively fun.
As the days progressed and we recovered from our fatigue and jet lag, got our bearings and the weather mercifully improved (and we learned to ignore the French) we fell into a happier, more comfortable rhythm. The days were mostly “The Amazing Race” and we learned to function like a team. Happily, our evenings truly were “The Bachelorette” and we had wonderful, romantic evenings with candlelit dinners and strolls back to our apartment along the River Seine. And to my great relief, we never had a serious “Survivor” moment where we wished we could vote the other off the island.
Traveling with one’s spouse can be both rewarding and risky business. Here’s my take-aways from the whole experience:
Teamwork and engagement are important. I’m the planner in the family so I did all the pre-trip planning, and consequently began to think of it as “my trip.” I initially approached our days in Paris like a self-appointed Tour Guide and did all the legwork and made all the arrangements and it began to feel like a job. Even though part of me had trouble giving up control of “my trip”, I found to my relief that things worked much better and we both had more fun once my husband fully engaged and took on tasks. There was much to figure out on the ground with respect to transportation (metro system, trains, street maps, etc.). He became our Chief Navigation Officer and was responsible for getting us to and from places with his iPhone navigation apps, and took ownership for some of the planning, as when he spearheaded a wonderfully memorable night walk to take photos at some of our favorite monuments. Next time, I will look for ways to get him more involved earlier.
Go with the flow. When traveling to a foreign country, especially on your own like we did, there are numerous surprises and things that don’t go according to plan. We both had to learn to be flexible with our plans and with each other. There were times when I really wanted to do something, but I could see from my husband’s face that that something might put him over the edge. It’s also important to recognize when one or both parties might need some alone time to recharge, or to do separate activities. And some of our favorite experiences stemmed from spontaneous detours from plan that I might have initially resisted. I hated the idea of going to a falafel place in Paris but we did and it was great.
Girlfriend trips are different. I have gone on great trips over the years with my female friends. We usually laugh, shop, talk and do all the other things girlfriends do when they get together. A trip with my husband is fundamentally different, because the relationship is fundamentally different. I love both types of trips , but I have learned the types of trips and activities that work better with my friends and those that work better with my husband, and its better not to mix the two.. Trying to get my husband to spend a day shopping or wandering aimlessly or playing bingo with me on a cruise ship is just not going to work. That’s what my girlfriends are for!
Know when to bite your tongue. Big one for me! Once one or both of us gets tired and cranky, it doesn’t take much from the other for things to quickly escalate out of control. And when together constantly, it can become a pressure cooker situation with no place to hide. It can start over the silliest things – like when I stopped to take a picture of a flower stand and then realized that my husband had taken off without me and then I finally caught up with him on busy Blvd St Germaine and was ready to tear his head off but thankfully thought better of it before I got too far in my “commentary”. We had made a pact before we left home not to let any disagreements ruin our time together on this trip. There were some minor flare-ups, but nothing serious, and it helped to count to ten and remember our pact.
Granted, these take-aways may seem to be rather basic relationship advice, but are things that can trip my husband and I up under normal circumstances, and it was important to recognize that extended togetherness can put additional strain on a marriage or other relationship and must be carefully managed. International travel can be hard work!
And if this trip was an AP exam, what was the result? We certainly didn’t get a perfect score, but we found ourselves to be surprisingly compatible! That we successfully overcame every trial we faced together (sometimes smoothly, sometimes ugly) was a real boost to our relationship. It was a challenging, incredible, life changing and shared experience. If I had done this trip with someone else, I would not have been able to adequately convey what I saw and experienced to my husband. Now that we’re back home, I love hearing him enthusiastically tell other people about all the things we did in France and his perspectives on the experience. The trip confirmed and deepened our level of trust with each other. When I got sick on the train coming back from Giverny (I’ll spare the details), I was exceedingly grateful that I was with my husband because I have the utmost confidence in him. After years of balancing careers and family and tag teaming and co-parenting, now that we’re retired empty nesters, we re-discovered our abiding friendship. We still really like each other! My husband may have some really annoying habits, but so do I (although I’m convinced mine are less annoying). Nonetheless our more unvarnished acceptance and affection for each other is a richer and more satisfying companionship.
Probably the single best indicator occurred before we had even left Paris, enroute to the airport for our flight home, when my husband turned to me and said (with palpable enthusiasm in his voice) ”So where should we go on our next big trip?!”