The plan was to meet in Rome and then spend the following three weeks circumnavigating Italy’s hot spots creating lifestyle photography for a travel tour company. I would be the photographer and my beautiful German friend, the model. The client was footing the bill for expenses and a generous day rate. Dream assignment, right? It should have been.
I am sorry to confess, however, that I was a terrible travel companion. Even worse, I was the last person to know it. Stressed and controlling, I spent much of the trip attempting to dodge a bitter tsunami of inner irritability. If she could just learn to read a map, keep pace with the 16-hour days the shot list required, and understand that this wasn’t a vacation, I told myself, then I could shed my foul mood and return to my charming self. Ha! More than a decade later, I’m able to see the insanity of my thoughts. And it is a testament to my friend’s loving nature that we remain friends and can even share a laugh over the good times (yes, there were plenty) and the bad.
Then there was an outing in the Bahamas that I spoiled because I couldn’t relax and let go of control. As part of a vacation, we’d rented a power boat with some friends for a day of snorkeling and exploration in the Abacos, a sparkling archipelago of remote islands and cays. For some insane reason, I seemed to think it was my job to direct (read: micro manage) my husband, the designated driver. My backseat driving was, in hindsight, not only appallingly disrespectful but it cast a cloud of tension on what should have been a carefree day in paradise.
And dare I admit that my sister probably spent a very expensive holiday in France with me walking on egg-shells in an attempt to avoid pushing my hair-trigger buttons?
Control issues seem to be a common theme in my worst moments. But with nearly fifty years behind me, I’ve learned enough from life’s experiences to understand that our most shameful moments can serve as invitations to look within and confront our misperceptions. Being self-aware matters to me now, and matters only more as I ease into middle age.
It has slowly dawned on me that perhaps it would be wise if I began to unravel the mystery of myself. To learn from my past so that I can move forward with understanding and grace.
So that is what I’ve been doing.
For the better part of two years while my husband and I have wandered from one country to another, I’ve worked my way through my beliefs and behaviors, questioning and investigating my assumptions and conditioned responses.
Tucked away in Latin America, I’ve passed untold hours in quiet courtyard gardens, on sunny rooftop terraces, and plaza cafés in the company of eminently wise writers — Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Rumi, Chopra, Tolle and Lao Tzu— who have become my inspiration and teachers.
To be absolutely honest, in spite of it all, in spite of all the wisdom and reading and studying, I am still torn between one Ellen Barone and another. The ‘Big Bitch,’ as my husband affectionately refers to my dark side, continues to coexist with a kinder, gentler self. But I’m learning to accept the paradox.
Sure, some of the time I manage to act with courage and compassion, but not always. Nothing dies harder than old beliefs. Just when I think I’ve grown beyond that kind of foolishness, I’ll catch myself trying to cover up fear and insecurity with defensiveness and blame.
Fortunately, I have the perfect travel partner. A quiet and humorous, strong and affectionate husband who listens to my sour rants and small judgements with a tender knowing that seems to say, “Yes, you are flawed and lovable, crazy and wise, and I love you.” With a kind smile, a simple hug, or a gentle kiss he leads me from anger and frustration back to the peace of my true self.
After twenty-three years together, we’ve had our arguments, Hank and I. But they’ve become rare over the passing years. And during this time that we’ve been away and living with little more than ourselves, we’ve had such moments of raw intimacy and understanding that I’m stunned by the pure chance of our unlikely union. Back when we fell in love, when I was twenty-seven and he was fifty-four, Hank was as unlikely a mate as I could imagine for myself. Yet destiny intervened and circumstances led me to this man, this marriage, and to this nomadic existence.
Could it be that I am both the worst and the best travel companion? Is it possible that the dramas are my path to self discovery? Or that what matters most is not the reality of my imperfections, but that I keep trying — trip by trip, relationship by relationship, moment by moment — to shed pretense and protection and follow the trail back to myself?
What about you? Have you ever experienced conflict with a travel partner? Or been a terrible travel companion yourself? Share a comment below to continue the conversation. I’d love to hear your thoughts.