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Truce hurts: David Whitley

Travelling together can be fraught when both parties are hell-bent on good-natured compromise

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The traditional, first-day-of-the-holiday argument begins in the shadow of Budapest’s Castle Hill. Stomachs are rumbling, yet crippling dithering has taken hold.

“Shall we have a look at that cafe?” I say, secretly not wanting to go and sit down in the cafe. I’m perfectly happy to grab a sandwich and walk up the hill with it. The menu looks awful, and getting the waiter’s attention is going to be nigh-on impossible. So we gingerly shuffle to the one across the road. There’s a 45-minute wait for a table. This hapless flitting continues, peppered with increasing levels of passive-aggressive sniping and sighs about each other’s chronic inability to make a decision, until we trudge back to the original cafe. As we sit down to tuck in, at least an hour after we’d wanted to eat, my wife breaks the simmering tension with a confession. “I’d have been happy to grab a sandwich and walk up the hill with it,” she says.

These inevitable, petty rows are all part of the couples’ holiday recalibration process, something that takes at least a day and a half. It’s what happens when two stridently independent individuals are put together and compelled to fashion an enjoyable experience. We’re both accustomed to travelling alone for work, which means we’ve both developed our own regimented way of doing things. But efficiency and decisiveness fly out the window when both parties are hell-bent on good-natured compromise.

The same applies to booking a hotel. On my own, I’ll go for the first place that’s cheap and doesn’t look awful. If we’re going on holiday as a couple, the desire to please (or, rather, the terror of potentially ending up being glowered at in a mould-covered grot-hole) takes over. It becomes a painstaking search through every available web page and guidebook, desperate to not have to take responsibility for a mistake.

Yet after a couple of days and a couple of dozen micro-arguments, the constant need for affirmation dissipates. You begin to synchronise — pussy-footing questions about what the other wants give way to a weird, unspoken understanding. But until that recalibration is complete, there’s lots of grouchy stomping to be done. And in this instance, it’s down an ugly major artery behind the Széchenyi Thermal Bath.

After a lovely afternoon at the spa, we’re faced with the dilemma of how best to get back to the hotel. My inclination is to walk in the general direction until we find something to take us there. My wife’s is to head to the nearest bus stop, changing buses if necessary. We end up with an ugly compromise: hunting for the number 5 bus with the dubious help of a map that’s too small. Buses go past — a number 74, then a 73, then another 74, but never a 5 — as the stroll turns into an ever stroppier march to nowhere.

“Slow down! Let’s just stop and work out where we’re going.”

“Why don’t you take the map and work out where this mythical bus is?”

“Oh, so it’s all my fault is it?”

“If we were doing it my way, we’d have walked back to the hotel by now. But oh no, we’ve trudged a mile and a bit in the wrong direction…”

Eventually, long after a shower and a beer should’ve been had, we end up at a Metro station near home. After a bit of simmering time and a few cheap drinks we’re friends again. This time the aimless stagger is far more enjoyable, from bar to bar, with little regard for the next morning’s hangover. By the time we stop for a nightcap in the bar opposite the hotel, the calibration is complete. We’re in proper holiday mode. We clink glasses, say sheepish sorrys and get distracted by the bus stopping right outside the hotel. It’s the number 74.

 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)