Call me Ulysses if you like. I have certainly enjoyed many fine travel adventures. But don’t expect my Penelope to stay home unraveling a rug. My wife and I have cultivated a shared passion for travel for over 40 years, and have made many mistakes along the way.
Traveling together can be a unique bonding experience, or it can be stressful and divisive. Somewhere along the way, we reached a tipping point. Now, the simple act of sitting together in a car, train, or airplane, embarking on a new adventure fills us with delight and affection—whether we are headed to the other side of the world or up the road to one of our favorite camping sites.
This delight comes in good part from a string of successes at overcoming the many stresses of travel. So, I would like to share with you some of our best traveling misadventures, and the emotional intelligence lessons learned over the miles and years together:
1. Be humble
Early in our relationship, we came to a fork in the road and turned left toward Quebec. I was hoping to impress her with my spontaneous, adventurous side, but she noticed that I was becoming increasingly anxious as more and more of the traffic signs were in French.
The prospect of not being able to read a menu zapped me with shame, making me irritable, which I tried unsuccessfully to hide. Fortunately, Penny was forgiving. The lesson I eventually took away was that a more humble attitude of curiosity and an interest in learning from new experiences is a better mindset for traveling together than a desire to show off knowledge, sophistication, or machismo.
2. Take care of each other
On our honeymoon, we got up to dance at a dark and noisy club in the Caribbean leaving Penny’s purse underneath the table with passports and plane tickets, as well as cash and credit cards inside of it. While we were dancing, someone snatched her purse. We were especially inconvenienced because Penny was flying directly to a business trip afterward, and it took the rest of the honeymoon to reconstruct all the paperwork.
From that we learned to be more careful in a strange environment, and also to watch one another’s backs. On another trip, when I was surrounded by a group of children in Florence with two distracting me skillfully while the others went through my pockets, Penny ran up screaming and chased them away.
3. Know your limits
Jet lag, Montezuma’s Revenge, or flight-induced head colds reduce our tolerance for stress and require extra patience. I tend to become snappish when we are trying to find our way out of the airport, and driving a manual shift car on the left hand side of the road, while wondering whether all of those extra charges on the rental car agreement were really necessary.
Meanwhile, Penny is particularly aware of her tendency to become irritated with jet lag, and regularly reminds me to take it easy during the first couple of days on a trip. Don’t plan too much and overextend yourself. It’s surprising how easy it is to forget that in the excitement of a new adventure.
4. Assert yourself
On a bus tour in Russia some in the group were interested in taking every opportunity to shop. It wasn’t our priority, but we enjoyed some of the souvenirs we bought. It quickly became the default preference for the group, and we were becoming frustrated when we missed opportunities for other activities, until we realized that we too could assert our preferences.
Though the tour guide could not accommodate the request we had, we told her we wanted to go off on our own for a few hours, and had a unique experience in St. Petersburg as a result. We learned that saying what we want helps in planning and negotiating, whether with a group or just between the two of us.
5. Be self-aware
Penny is sensitive to the idea of being perceived as a pushy tourist, the classic ugly American. When our flight was delayed, and about 20 other passengers missed a connection in Paris, the Air France staff informed us that there were no seats available the same day on any flight to Florence.
One of the disappointed passengers loudly demanded that something must be done, and explained repeatedly to the ticket agents why this situation was intolerable. We were both extremely uncomfortable, feeling a mix of emotions including humiliation by association with the pushy group member, anxiety over the outcome, and frustration over the whole mess. Emotions in group situations can be contagious. Self awareness can allow you to maintain objectivity and flexibility in a crisis.
6. Respect each other
Penny and I have different preferences, and sometimes we plan for them. When I go windsurfing on the Outer Banks, Penny goes to a little known art gallery where she has found great deals on antique prints over the years. Still, I admit that I gave her more than a little grief about her decision to eat at a McDonalds in Kyoto.
I complained that the smell of French fries would be evident to everyone in the Ryokan, where we were staying. In the end,I had to admit that she had a wonderful experience with people at the foreign/familiar fast food location, and that has provided a good travel story for years. The idea in this story is to respect one anothers’ preferences, and work to accommodate them as often as possible.
7. Hope for the best (but expect the worst)
One of the problems with great vacation plans is great expectation. Sometimes they are fulfilled. I refused to believe that the Taj Mahal could be as stunning as all the pictures I have seen of it. But when you walk through the portal, it just knocks your socks off. Nonetheless, great expectations can lead to great disappointments.
A meal at a special country restaurant booked a month in advance for our anniversary was marred by bad weather,I knew a snow storm was coming, and bad treatment at the bed and breakfast. In situations like this, I tend to get mad at myself for the mishap. “How could I be so stupid?” I know it doesn’t make sense, to beat up on myself, but the emotional impact of a disappointment works its way out in odd ways for each of us.
If you are aware of what is going on, you can avoid generalizing, and just accept it for it what it is—a disappointment. Perhaps there is some way to reduce the risk in the future, but it’s not a reason to give up on high expectations. Just don’t punish yourself or anyone else too much for it.