It Takes Two To Travel

Monday, April 18, 2011
Travel Writer

When I was growing up, my parents never actually traveled anywhere, other than the predictable summer shore excursion — and of course, South Florida in the winter.

But that didn’t stop them from engaging in lively fantasy.

“Bud, wouldn’t it be romantic to go to Venice together?” my mom would rhapsodize, eyes shining at the prospect of gondolas and gelato. “Or Firenze! I remember shopping for gold jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio was I was 20…”

My father had been to Europe in the ’50s and was unimpressed. His idea of fun was someplace soulfully bleak, remote and very cold. Certainly not anyplace with shopping, which he abhorred.

“How about Antarctica? I’d cruise to Antarctica,” he’d reply with a poker face, because we all knew this was going nowhere, literally. My mother was as likely to board a ship for Antarctica as she was to sprout wings and fly off.

“Or how about the moon?” he’d continue, face still improbably serious. “I’d sign right up if they offered trips into outer space! Even if it were only one-way.”

Which at this point might have sounded, to my mom, like not-so-bad idea — for him.

This is why, every year, we landed back in comfortable Boca.

In the decades since, I’ve noticed my parents have a lot of company. Couples travel together reflexively; having a built-in partner for that double-occupancy is a perk of being a pair. But it turns out there are, scientifically speaking, approximately one zillion ways for couples to be travel-incompatible.

I know of couples where one party won’t get on an airplane; refuses to cruise; won’t leave U.S. territory (or insists on English-speaking destinations); is adamantly against any type of culture or learning activity; insists on culture and meaningful learning experiences (yes, married to the one who is against culture or learning activities); only travels places he can drive to; refuses to check bags, or refuses not to; won’t leave home without parents or dog, not necessarily in that order. And so on.

Years of the aforementioned scientific observation have convinced me that my parents’ particular dilemma is not only classic, but it enshrines a fairly common gender split. A lot of men seem to want to commune with nature, while their women are ready to take the cities by storm, credit cards and opera glasses at the ready.

A family friend, whom I’ll call Anita, used to complain about this. “He wants to lie on a beach. He wants to go to Hawaii and do nothing,” she moaned, making it sound like a week in the gulag. And as it turns out, Siberia would have suited her just fine: Anita took off for the more remote cities of ex-Soviet-bloc Europe whenever she got the chance.

Her husband, meanwhile, couldn’t fathom the attraction in struggling with a language barrier, surrounding yourself with poverty, and eating lousy food while fighting frostbite. (It should be noted that this was the early 1990s; aside from the climate, Eastern Europe has improved considerably.) Anita thrived on the stimulating cultural immersion of post-Soviet Vilnius and Bucharest, was so heat sensitive that she traveled with her own air conditioner, and was bored silly on beaches anyhow.

They later divorced. But other couples I know have negotiated compromises, which (like most projects) are easiest to pull off if you have both a lot of free time and large amounts of cash. You can alternate cultural and rural getaways, for instance, or combine a week of Quebec ice-fishing with four-star dining and ballet in Montreal.

I know more than one pair that observes kashruth differently, which can be challenging away from the comfort zone of familiar kosher labels, glatt restaurants and Zabar’s.

One friend is comfortable simply eating vegetarian outside her own kitchen, which she keeps kosher for her more-observant husband. He prefers to stick to established kosher-friendly destinations, which cramps her style — as do large suitcases of kosher food, one unwieldy alternative.

They, and many observant travelers, do best with organized Jewish tours and cruises. Home rentals are another solution, allowing you to at least shop and cook (the local Jewish community is often a great resource for kosher shopping).

Then there’s the issue of family. For some people, a vacation is a chance to spend holidays with parents and cousins. For others, the mere presence of common DNA makes the trip Not A Vacation.

Years ago, I was all set for a week of uninterrupted romance and leisure on Italy’s Amalfi Coast when my then-boyfriend’s mother got involved. Her parents’ family was originally from the Naples area; surely there were long-lost cousins there; why didn’t we look them up and say hello?

I couldn’t tell her that large, overbearing family was one of the chief reasons I needed a vacation. The last thing I wanted to do was schlep halfway around to world to dig up more. Annoyingly, the boyfriend was enthusiastic at the prospect of spending his vacation with people who didn’t know he was alive, and with whom he shared no common language. So I pulled out the trump card of couples negotiations: he could vacation with them or me, but not both.

I won, and as the dingy train rattled through some of Naples’ grittier suburbs, he conceded I had a point.

And my parents? It turns out that my father’s exotic aspirations were simply a foil: He didn’t really want to leave home at all.

So my mom packs her bags and takes off with me instead. Sometimes, a change of partner is the only way to get anywhere.

He likes culture, she likes views — what’s a traveling couple to do?

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