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How to deal with that day of travelling when nobody likes each other

Travelling with friends

Icarus, crash landed in the ancient Roman forum of Pompei, telling us it’s inadvisable to get too close to the sun.  Sculptures by Igor Mitoraj.

For good reason, travelling alone is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it can, on occasion, seem preferable to travelling with a friend.

Travelling with a friend can stir up a whole set of small irritations that in normal circumstances would pass unnoticed. Imagine spending every waking, and non-waking moment with someone, more time than if you were in a relationship, every little friction intensifies. Happy interdependence heats up, until you realise you’re bound together and can’t escape. Or at least can’t escape without breaking an unspoken contract.

You entwine your plans around each other, because you love each other, and only later wonder why in this travel – which is supposed to be freeing – you feel trapped. Aren’t you having fun?

I’ve travelled alone, but not everybody has. Alone, with nobody else to please, I’m capable of walking around the central streets of a city for half an hour trying to decide where to have coffee and a croissant for breakfast (Modena). And that’s without anyone else to appease. That’s just taking in my desires for the right looking croissants, happy clientele, serving staff who smile. Coffee that smells good. A week of such behaviour and even my most loving friends are going to be going batty.

Expect the friction

DeepThought and the Circumvesuviana

In Italy, on the first Sunday of the month there’s free entry to the tourist sites of Pompei, Herculaneum and the scattered villas that Mt. Vesuvius buried with its volcanic spread of AD. 89.

DeepThought and I had been going crazy visiting places and seeing things. Neither of us are concerned by a 40-minute walk here or there, so we’d also done a lot of walking. Mostly searching for an elusive pizza restaurant with a chimney, but that’s another story (and all my fault).

Sunday morning, I overslept. We disagreed on the urgency of lunch. At the train station, acting out of habit, we got on the wrong train. On realising, we then got off the train, took another train back and then a third train to get to where we’d wanted to be. Finally at the station we were heading to, we became uncertain as to whether we were at the right station. There were no obvious signs to the mysterious villas, and this being lunch time on a Sunday there was nothing open and nobody about.

We started walking in a direction. The threat offered by the grey sky was no bluff. Only I had a coat. We began again, walking in a different direction. Changed our minds, and finally ended up at a cross roads where a small sign pointed down the road to a villa.

Since it was the first Sunday of November, in the ticket office there was a visitor book that one had to sign. I signed my name in all the boxes, recording DeepThought’s home city as a squiggle of my own name.

At Pompei, the rain would have been miserable, but although the villa wasn’t architecturally as exciting as anything we’d seen in the previous few days, it was at least mostly covered. This was something to be grateful for.

After viewing that villa, we walked along the road to the next villa (taking another wrong turn along the way). There was no path. And it was so late when we finally arrived that the villa was closed. Quiet.

Ravenous, I bought and consumed a large packet of chocolate brioche from an open supermarket.

Sicily and the loud house

It’s not such a different story from what happened only a month later, when, confined in a house with two Sicilian’s and not enough space I found myself angering at the slightest provocation. It felt like an impossible situation but it was simply a matter of too much all at once.

Sometimes it’s just not so easy to be having fun.

“But we’ve been friends forever.”

Sadly, it doesn’t matter how well intentioned the other person is. Neither Maria asking if I was alright, telling me that my happiness really mattered to her, nor DeepThought gritting his teeth and behaving with supreme English gentleman’s reserve was enough. It happens every time I travel with anyone.

And it’s not just me.

When I pull up my chair in a café or bar, and start listening to people who have travelled a lot, everyone seems to have stories to tell about travelling with friends. Home friends, that put up with our not being there and don’t let our never-ending supply of photos of sunny beaches grate on them too much, especially while they’re in the office on a Monday morning, are valued and precious creatures. These are people who know us by more than first impressions. And that mix of history and knowledge makes for an intimacy and belonging that lonely travellers long for.

And yet, everyone seems to have cautionary tales of mixing close friends and travel. I’ve witnessed enough exchanges of horror stories where one person ends up leaving the other in South Africa or India alone. Or two people have a spat and a breakdown in the supermarket, on a hostel floor, or in the middle of some tourist’s photo of the Arc De Triumph

Don’t waste your time blaming, plan space

I’m going to irritate anyone travelling with me.

I’m going to get crabby at some point as I wear out if they have too much time without a decent and whole chunk of solitary space to recover and rejuvenate. The least I can do is be upfront about it and encourage whomever I’m with to call me out on any sharp or snide comments that escape. It’s not personal.

Sometimes it seems like a waste of good time that you could spend together, to have days apart, to visit coffee shops alone, or endeavour to accomplish a lone 10km run. But space is what makes getting along possible. If I don’t read a book, write my diary and go for a walk or a run I’m insufferable.

I used to feel bad about not always being attentive. But now I know that in the long run, escaping a while is a kindness.

In the Bay of Naples, with DeepThought, when we arrived back at our apartment, I hid in the kitchen and cooked. Cooking is a great solace. An apartment offers more space than a hostel or hotel.

What to do if being alone scares you

Budapest. I’ve pushed Midget for days, forcing her beyond her comfort zone. Her feet ache from the walking I’ve made her do.

Budapest is big. It’s heavy and it’s dirty. The stunning buildings scream the richness of Vienna but look like Miss Havisham is in charge of the housework. Midget, quite frankly, had reached a point of enough.

So, she curled up on the bed and read a book.

And I went outside, not so far because when she’s feeling uncertain about things it’s not worth worrying her about where I might be. But I went outside, leaving her alone in our apartment, and I sat on a bench which she could have seen if she’d peered out her window, and I sat and sketched the parliament building.

And when she’d finished her book, she was ready to play again.

Don’t let intense emotions surprise you

“Which of us was crying?”

“I think it must have been me.”

“By the coffee shop by the metro station.”

“Yeah that’s right.” Understanding pause. “So where shall we go next?”

It’s just an acknowledgement of reality. You can’t keep up an illusion or pretence of perfection, which is itself a precious freedom. Travel isn’t about just exploring the scenery. It’s as much internal as external. When you travel with a friend you’re taking them on that journey with you. You’re going to have intense moments, deep conversations and as cliché as it is, you’ll change.

Laugh about how you’re going to get it wrong

So, if I were to give one piece of advice to any friends travelling together, it would be this, laugh at how you’re going to irritate the hell out of each other.

As one friend joked, on a particularly vexing afternoon: “At least being stuck with me is good practice for when you have children.”


How do you learn a language?

Life on a French farm

“Mon serviette,” the trilingual three-year-old demands from his high-chair.

“Ma serviette,” Grand-meré corrects.

“Mon serviette,” the boy insists.

“Non, ma serviette. C’est feminine.”

“Mon serviette.”

Later on, the grand-daughters are practicing their spelling.







How do you learn a language?

Not how do you memorise vocabulary, or correctly conjugate verbs, but how do you open your mouth and persuade a sound to come out? What’s more, how do you make this sound loud enough and clear enough that someone sitting at the other side of the dinner table knows you’re speaking to them?

This is a skill that the children have and I struggle with. Everyone at the table is in the process of learning. The children are learning both English and French, the grandparents are improving their English with the help of my frequent but gentle corrections and I’m…

… I guess I’m learning to overcome that debilitating panic that numbs my memory. I’m lost every time I want to ask for something or reply to someone in French. It doesn’t so much matter that I’m stuck in the present tense, nor that I have atrocious pronunciation. I just have to start.

How do you feel about speaking a foreign language?


The subjective nature of ‘pretty’.

Pretty Roof TilesAn Autumn evening in rural France.

Which took a turn for the surreal when I found myself standing beside a huge stack of old roof tiles with three French men who were discussing which ones they loved the most.

Unsurprisingly, Grand-peré owns a surplus of tiles, to go with his surplus of rooves.

Every now and again, a Frenchman would declare ‘C’est tres joli’ (in English: oh my, isn’t this tile so delightfully pretty). I never discovered the ideal shape and so ignored this factor. I simply stacked the non-broken tiles, and threw the cracked ones in the bucket of the digger. They made a satisfactory noise as they shattered.

The other component of ‘prettiness’ was the colour of the tiles. Here there was rather a lot of disagreement. One man liked the ones with more yellow, another preferred the ones with more pink. Nobody was a huge fan of the very orange tiles. They looked much too modern – although being modern they had fine shape because they probably weren’t made on some Frenchman’s thigh.

Yes, roof tiles are thigh imprints. Who’d have guessed that.

Once we’d put 500 tiles in the van, we went in for dinner. The visitors felt 500 was enough. They would come back for the rest later. Grand-peré had a surplus of roof tiles.

As she was stirring the soup, I explained to Grand-meré what had been happening outside. She smiled when I told her about my struggle to translate such an outpouring of affection for a roof tile. Her opinion was that what a man looks for in a tile is very subjective. There’s no point worrying about it.

Grand-meré has a surplus of wise advice.


Off the beaten path

The Zobar mountains and St Michael’s


When I was walking, especially when I was exerting myself by climbing a hill, breathing became a more pronounced force that was easier to concentrate on than my moderate breathing. Each breath was almost vocal; it almost touched the invisible. As I walked, eventually I became my breathing, and things like worrying, wallowing in anger, and feeling ill will toward others simply fell away.
John Francis, The Ragged Edge of Silence

I’m often amazed at how I can get it into my head that I’m going to walk somewhere. Whoever’s with me will whinge and complain. But they’ll follow regardless. Perhaps, at first, I’ll feel bad, but by the end I’ll be glad to have dragged them out.

On the Greek island of Kos, I persuaded DeepThought that we ought to get up early, watch the end of June sunrise, and take a walk to the nearby monastery. This was all because the previous day I’d overheard a waitress saying it was unwalkable.

In the hills above the village in which I lived last spring, just north of Barcelona, I convinced a young American man that the rocks that I was scrambling down were a path. All because I’d seen a glimpse of some sort of tower. He seemed less convinced when I fell over and splattered the mountain with my blood, but once I’d disappeared further along he plucked up the courage to follow. He reminded me of this last night when he messaged me for a catch up: I told him I was going on a walking holiday and he asked what a walking holiday was.

In Slovakia, the object of my attention was a small chapel which went by the Slovakian equivalent of St. Michael’s. The afternoon was warm, and my companion was my little sister. Midget has been dragged more places by me than most, yet, somehow, she still agreed that walking up into the forests on the Zobar mountains was doable.

Once we’d been walking sometime she began voicing doubts. Such doubts I always ignore.

But eventually we arrived. Preparations had begun for a bonfire. Children ran around playing games. Fathers, uncles and older brothers, chased them around, while the women gossiped and sunned their legs.

We skipped the mountain on the return journey. Instead we walked through the village, which at half two in the afternoon was quiet and sleepy. The houses were small in stature, but all were detached with gardens. I was enraptured by their stunning displays of vegetables and flowers.

Where have your wanderings taken you?


[Rapunzel informs me that Americans don’t walk, they hike.]


Nitra: Picking a city at random for an adventure


The uncertainty surrounding foreign train journeys inspires me to pray.

There’s always a moment, when I’m standing on the edge of a platform, tickets clutched in my hand, doubting that the train I think is arriving is the same train that is identified on my ticket. I’m not religious, but prayer, or meditation, is a more helpful exercise than panic. Plus, when travelling with Midget I can’t afford to appear vexed. She’s trusting me to have everything completely in control.

In Naples (2016), with DeepThought, I forgot to pray, double check or cross reference. So things went wrong, and then wrong again. But, apart from with the Circumvesuviana, I’ve been incredibly lucky.

The train station in Bratislava had wi-fi, which I used combined with the departure board to make a reasonable platform guess. However, the ticket was one slip of paper for both of us, inviting more doubt that remained until it was wordlessly accepted by the inspector. It included a QR (Quick Response) code which struck me as fancy for a train line where you had to leap from the train into the gravel.

We passed through stunning fields of dying sunflowers. The decaying of happiness. And arrived at Surany, where all but one of the many train lines appeared abandoned to weeds and oxygen. The station’s veranda and single clock reminded me of a western.

Nitra, a destination chosen for its larger size and pronounceable name. We could hardly miss our train for it was the only train. Compared to the clanking train from Bratislava to Surany, with its Hogwarts style carriage compartments, it was a modern build with steps down to the gravel. Yet, on our arrival we realised that the train station resembled something more like the one in our village than one belonging to a city.

Still, the city of Nitra enchanted.

Not with impressive architecture. Nor with any fancy food – although my pasta bake with pizza dough crust was something special. Instead it struck me as a place you’d want to raise children. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. By peeling ourselves away from the tourism of Bratislava, we had stepped out of the English-speaking world. As now we weren’t being sold an idea of Slovakia, we were in Slovakia.

I felt it proved that something was missing from home. The overwhelming feeling of Nitra was one of family. Everywhere we went there were adults and children together, and a startling absence of screen staring. Midget agreed, and our conversations kept returning to this sensation of community that we couldn’t quite describe. A short walk from where we rented a room was a large park. Here, adults and children cycled and swept along on their rollerblades. Little cafés stood within a mass of playgrounds. There were deer, goats, a sheep, a cow and a donkey. Children took pony rides and built castles in the sandpits. The adults chatted and laughed.

A tiny child parked his pedal-less bike in the bike rack beside the café where we were sitting drinking kofola. He just got on with it, without any doubt that his bike and the other bikes all belonged together.


The kids don’t have to love you and other thoughts on being an au-pair

Being an Au-PairThe kids don’t have to love you.

They do, typically, become very much attached, but you can’t force it. There’s a certain sense of discipline that’s required. You’re not their best friend, you’re the responsible adult. An overdose of flattery isn’t going to help, nor is allowing them more sweets, TV time or access to a tablet.

Sometimes they are adorable, wanting cuddles and happy to quietly play a game. Then some very short time later, they can be causing a commotion by sticking their tongue out at you when they thought their parents weren’t watching. Tears ensue. You wonder what you did to deserve such a change in character. Where did the nice kid go?

The truth is, you’re a temporary wall between the child and their parents. When things are going good, this is a wall that gives the child a bit of private freedom from their omnipotent gods. When things are not so good, they are going to play bulldozer or try scrambling over the top of you.

Parents love you of course, while they’re enjoying their moment of space. Peace and quiet is a luxury. But when they panic that they no longer have complete control, they act all sorts of unpredictable. Those I’ve lived with have generally been very good at demonstrating their gratitude, but I’ve known numerous au pairs whose families constantly have au pairs, and so feel taken for granted.

The kids, when they love you, see you as theirs, a precious playmate. But when they hate you, you’re a second-rate commander. You’re an adult, but unlike teachers and parents you’ve failed to be omnipotent. Younger kids follow the stance of the older kids. Saying no to their requests can fire you from best friend to evil overlord in an irrational second. You have to not take it personally. These are kids, they lack empathy or perspective. They don’t know if their words and actions will hurt you, but they’re curious. So, guess what, they’re going to do all they can to ignite a reaction. And then, if successful, perhaps they’ll laugh.

But some days, they’ll curl up on the sofa and ask what you’re reading. And they’ll listen as you talk of philosophy in a language they don’t understand. Some days, they’ll take the drawings you do to school, and you’ll realise that their teacher knows your name, as do their friends and their friends’ parents. This sweet child who refused to put their shoes on has told everyone they know about you. Occasionally, when the school gates open, they’ll scream your name and run, leaping at you with a hug disproportionate to their size.

And then, one day, in a final act of betrayal that somehow feels crueller than any middle of the street tantrum a five-year-old could throw, you’ll pack your bags and leave.