In my Year of the Flaneuse (A flaneur is one with the leisure to wander the streets of a city -- at times as mere observer and, at other times, as one of the observed as well) I have observed, i.e., unabashedly watched and eavesdropped upon, a troubling scene made all the more troubling by the fact that I have seen it so often it may qualify as a demographic trend. It involves women our age traveling with their husbands and it boils down to this: they just aren’t very nice to each other. The women sound impatient, sharp and snappish, and the men seem at once resistant and beleaguered. Here they are -- in lovely places with, apparently, the resources (time, money, and good health) to enjoy themselves -- and they seem miserable, at least in each other’s company. They’re not really quarreling or actively disagreeing; they’re just entirely disagreeable.
As observer -- and sometimes observed -- I can imagine why: they’re both in new, if not strange places and stressed; they’re away from home and the conversations about the quotidian they make by rote after all these years; they’re feeling more fragile or vulnerable this trip than they did say, five or 10 years ago, and that worries them -- how many more trips like this can they take, what if one of them falls, or has a heart attack; they’ve had too much togetherness and their idiosyncrasies are no longer charming but irritating; traveling awakens in one old passions and/or new interests and he/she feels suddenly stunted in the marriage or by the other’s absent curiosity or delight; and/or this is what Retirement was supposed to be all about -- time together and travel -- and, well, they’re disappointed and frightened by the disappointment and the prospect of the next 20 years.
From any of these emotional challenges rancor can, clearly, emerge. He says “What?” one too many times -- he wasn’t listening, he can’t hear -- and she seethes, clenching her teeth, “I said . . .” She strides ahead of the group to be first in line, or closest to the tour guide and then hisses a command to join her, as if to an errant child. He looks at the menu and closes it in disgust; she defends her choice of restaurant, says she found it in the guidebook, and if he would even lift a finger to make a reservation. . . . Why does he have to be so close-minded and critical? He sighs and orders a beer. She sighs as if he’s incorrigible. They snipe at each other through every meal, with body language and monosyllables, pushing their plates aside at the end, a reflection of their disgust. It’s really unpleasant. If you engage them -- where are you from?, how long have you been in this country?, are you touring the XXX after lunch?, have you seen YYYY? -- they morph instantly into a happy couple privileged to be living the dream. Like squabbling siblings when an outsider takes sides, they form a united front.
Which causes me to think their relationships probably aren’t so bad as they sound. They’ve just gotten into some really ugly habits. With only each other to blame for any mishaps or miscommunication on the trip (or, let’s be real here, in retirement) -- no more boss, work, kids, parents -- they have fallen into an intimate discomfort that fosters a rudeness they wouldn’t inflict on a friend or even a stranger. And, most likely, they take each other so much for granted at this time of their lives, they probably don’t even know how bitterly unhappy they sound -- to each other, or to anyone listening.
I’m not diminishing the men’s role in all this, but my observation is that it’s the women who sound so bad -- and I know I’ve been one of them this year, which is jolting, really to my self-image; that’s not the kind of person I want to be. I will, I vow, speak more intentionally, more carefully, gently, kindly, and patiently. And yes, lovingly.
Clearly, the need to adjust to this particular phase of retirement may not be bringing out the best in me (or in many others, according to my observations). Instead of building our relationships, we could be damaging them with our words and bad manners. We seem to be at risk of eroding the what-is instead of enhancing the what-can-be that we think we’ve been promised. It’s not something I’ve read or worried about before. I’m well aware that age can rob of us beauty and strength; but who knew it could, unbidden, cause our fundamental niceness to deteriorate, too? Hrumph! And just when we may need it the most.