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Why do we get along better on vacation?

By From page A6 | May 18, 2014

Why do my husband and I get along better on vacation than we do at home? We’re semi-retired, so our daily lives are not stressful and we don’t face a lot of conflict. Even so, we like each other better when we’re far from home.

“I’m going to figure it out this time,” I said to my husband on our first morning back after a dozen days of travel. “I’m going to pay attention to what we do differently when we’re home.”

So I did.

The first thing I noticed was how often he interrupts me. I’ll be at my computer, tapping out the first ideas for a column — the ones that get away as easily as an agile puppy — and he’ll walk in and say something like, “Why is there a bag of ice cubes in the freezer?” Or, “It’s much cheaper to fly out of San Francisco than Sacramento.” Or, “I can’t find my keys.”

He has told me that I give him a look of impatience, which must be the mirror image of the look he gives me when I ask an innocent question while he’s listening to music and washing his car.

He pulls the ear buds out of his ears, turns off the water, and eyes his car nervously as the soap dries.

“Yes?” he asks, “What do you want?”

He hasn’t heard me because of those darn ear buds, so I repeat my question.

On vacation, neither of us has a separate agenda. We’re together all the time, admiring produce at the farmers market, climbing up the same winding set of stairs, or trying to catch the same few words from a passing English language tour guide.

When decisions have to be made, we both focus on them, especially when it comes to food. When we’re driving, we may not agree about which spoke to take on the roundabout, but we’re both on board for the moment of decision, doing our best.

The second difference I notice between home and vacation is that life at home is full of right and wrong answers, and we both think we know more of the right ones. This year we had a lengthy debate about how to clip our grape vines, both of us absolutely certain our method was right. In the end, we divided the plants: I trimmed one plant my way; he trimmed one plant his way and we compromised on the third.

Other problems don’t yield as easily to equitable solutions. We disagree, for example, about whether fertilizer should be laid down on a day without rain. Will it burn the plants? One of us is sure it will. The other is sure it will not. The person who was distributing the fertilizer onto the plants did not like following the rules of the person who was not, but she did it to keep the peace.

The point is that around home, we’re both certain we know how things should be done.

It’s a whole other story in a foreign country. Traveling on your own, as we often do, you have to make lots of decisions with incomplete information, and it helps to work as a team.

Understanding public transportation, for example, requires full engagement of both of our brains. Coaxing an English translation of a long French menu from a busy waiter requires diplomatic skills — from both of us. When we’re shopping in a farmer’s market, neither of us really knows whether the fat asparagus will taste better than the thin. We buy some of each.

When we make mistakes, we make them together. Recently our big goof occurred as we were leaving our weeklong rental home. I saw a puzzled look in the eyes of our landlord as I handed her the keys, but she didn’t say anything.

We got into our car and drove to Avis where we returned the vehicle. They didn’t say anything either. Then we went to the hotel where we planned to spend one night before flying home, but they couldn’t find our reservation, until they finally located it starting 24 hours later.

That’s when we realized that we had left a beautiful area, a rental home we loved, and our handy rental car one day before we had to.

We looked at each and felt angry. Surely it was the other person’s fault. But as we reconstructed all the steps that led to our mistaken early departure, we realized that keeping track of the date is a mutual project and neither of us had done his or her best.

We forgive each other more easily on holiday because decisions come at us so rapidly, every day. Mistakes are inevitable.

At home, where we have more of a sense of controlling our destiny, we’re much harder on each other. A mistake gets made. Now who’s fault was it?

When I told my husband that I was going to try to figure out why we get along better while traveling I said, “Maybe you could observe us and try to figure it out, too.”

“Sure,” he said, fingering his ear buds to put them back in, “But I already know the answer.”

“Really? What is it?”

“We drink more wine.”

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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