Error: I'm afraid this is the first I've heard of a "comments" flavoured Blosxom. Try dropping the "/+comments" bit from the end of the URL.

Sat, 31 Oct 2009

Lune de Miel Après Vignt Ans

More often than not today, marriages are not what they used to be. Divorce rates hover near fifty percent, and this trend has only been moving upwards over time. Gone are the days when getting married was a more of less ironclad commitment for life, and divorce was looked upon as something somewhat scandalous. Changing societal mores (aided by the ready availability in this country of "no-fault" divorce laws) have changed divorce from a somewhat rare event to a condition rapidly approaching the norm.

Even so, if fifty percent or so of marriages end in failure, then conversely, fifty percent of them endure. Earlier this month, my wife and I got together with two couples with whom we have stayed close for more than two decades to jointly celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversaries. The splendid time we all had motivated me to ponder why some marriages succeed and some fail. Thinking back on all the good times I've shared with my wife over two decades cast my mind even further back in time, to our own wedding. Our twentieth anniversary fête with our friends hearkened me back to the last truly extended (and child-free) vacation my wife and I have had -- our honeymoon.

Based on what one sees on cable programs like Bridezillas, one can easily get the impression that planning the actual wedding ceremony is the most stressful thing couples have to do when getting married -- and perhaps that's true. (But I must point out that my own bride-to-be was completely the antithesis of the wackos one sees on shows like that. She was nervous and a little tense, but always resolute and calm.) But I submit that in many ways the honeymoon has much more influence on the future course of a couple's life together than the wedding itself does, and thus should have more attention paid to it in its planning and execution. A wedding, after all, takes place all in a day, and resembles nothing so much as an extended and upscale party for family and friends (with that life-altering ceremony chucked in the middle, of course).

But a honeymoon is different. First of all, depending on one's circumstances, it takes place over a timescale typically ranging from a week to a month or more. And it almost always takes place in some locale far removed from the couple's day to day lives, Even though many couples these days are cohabiting before their actual weddings, the going away from the familiar and the routine makes a honeymoon somewhat special in that regard -- if for no other reason than that the quirks and faults in each other which were easily and even sometimes cheerfully tolerated in the past now come smack up against the realization that there is no quick and painless exit, that your new relationship cannot be undone without a lot of mess and bother.

The first decision about their honeymoon most couples make is what kind of trip to take. According to a cousin of mine who is in the travel business, the majority of honeymooning couples opt for a "waited on hand and foot" type of experience, which explains why cruises and all-inclusive resorts and spas are the most popular destinations for honeymooning couples. There is something to be said for this approach: after dealing with all the details and stresses associated with planning the wedding itself, the notion of having a week or two in an exotic location with only having to make decisions of no greater consequence than "What shall we have for dinner?" or "Should we go jet-skiing or snorkeling this afternoon?" does have a certain appeal. But to me the downside of these kinds of honeymoon trips is the fact that you are rarely alone. A shipload of other vacationing and honeymooning travelers typically means that the activities are communal, the meals are communal, everything is communal. I have nothing against being communal per se, but to me a honeymoon should be more of an experience for the couple themselves and not so much about two people being part of a larger crowd all the time -- you tend to lose the "us" part of the experience in the larger "all of us"; there are fewer opportunities to have experiences alone that would make your honeymoon special and individual and not full of the same memories that those who took the same cruise before you and those who will after you will also have.

Instead (as you may have already guessed), my wife and I opted for the more private approach to our honeymoon. We would take no cruises or prepackaged tours, have no guides, take no buses, not be locked in to an prearranged and ironclad itinerary. We would go to the places we wanted to go, do the things we wanted to do, see the things we wanted to see, eat where and when we pleased, stay where it suited us, and essentially be in charge of ourselves. There was certainly more planning involved than simply booking a flight to some resort on a tropical island, or acquiring a cabin on the S.S. Minnow on its next cruise, but it allowed us to tailor our honeymoon to suit our own preferences and tastes. But that way, we would have had our honeymoon trip, and not the same trip taken by countless others. And that's exactly what we did.

Our first decisions obviously centered around where to go. Now, a year or two before our wedding, and before we were formally engaged, we decided to take a week's vacation to England and Scotland. At first, she was not keen on Scotland in particular ("What is there to do there?", she asked me). But having visited there several times before, I assured her that she would like it better once she had the chance to see it for herself. So we went, and, as I expected, she fell in love with the place: the scenery, the history, even having to pay strict attention when talking with one of the locals in order to fathom their heavily accented speech all made for an experience she took immediately to heart. So naturally, Scotland was the number one destination on her preliminary honeymoon plan -- which was perfectly fine with me as well.

Now direct flights between the U.S. and Scotland were relatively rare then (and have since essentially disappeared), so flying into London first was far more practical and flexible from a logistical point of view. So we planned on the first leg of the trip going there first and staying for several days. After all, when one is tired of London one is tired of life, and there were many, many places and things to see and do there.

One place not very far from London that we both had always wanted to see was Paris. My wife and I both spent several years studying French in school, and we both had always felt a longing to experience the life and culture of France for ourselves. Although our proficiency with the French language had certainly fallen quite a bit since my school days, we felt we knew enough of the basics to get by without inadvertently going into a restaurant and ordering a plate of well-done earmuffs or some such thing. By sticking to the Metro where we could and only taking taxis when we had to, we wouldn't have the worries associated with trying to drive -- and park -- in a large foreign city.

Getting to Paris was an open question. Before the Channel Tunnel made high-speed train travel from London to Paris quick and simple, your main choices were either to fly between the two cities, or to take one of the many ferries that plied the English Channel. Fortunately, as things turned out, it was fairly simple in those days of less-restricted air travel to design a so-called "open jaw" itinerary which included one or more intermediate stops for the same fare as flying to one city and returning only from there. So we could pretty easily add a London to Paris leg to our flights without costing us extra.

The final major stop on our honeymoon would be in Manchester, in the western midlands of England. My wife and I had become friends with a family there, and they had always extended a standing invitation to stay with them should the opportunity arise. And having never explored that area of England before, our honeymoon sounded like the perfect chance to do so. An evening or two spent with friends in the guest bedroom of their house would be a welcome break from hotels and restaurant food all the time. And by departing from Manchester, we could significantly reduce the travel time to the Scotland leg of our trip, which would have been long haul from London by train.

So we set our out our general plan: three days in London, then fly to Paris and spend four days there, fly from Paris to Manchester and stay there for two days, onwards by train to Edinburgh for three days, by train again to Inverness in the Scottish highlands for five days, an overnight train back to London to spend two days there before departing, and finally return to the U.S. A little under three weeks, and a chance to do things our way.

I set to work several months in advance to make the necessary arrangements. The ticketing for the flights was not much of a problem once we had the dates in hand. British Airways had no trouble with our New York-London-Paris-Manchester itinerary, capped by a return flight from London back to New York. A BritRail pass made the train trips within England and Scotland simply a question of researching the schedules on the appropriate dates. I found out how to purchase a multi-day carnet for the Paris Metro in advance in the U.S., so that would be one less thing to worry about while there. Working for a major financial institution in New York, there were no problems obtaining travelers checks in pounds and francs as well as enough foreign currency to get us through the first day in each country (these being the days before the Euro simplified that aspect of travel in western Europe).

Hotel accommodations worked themselves out nearly as well. Researches using the famous Michelin guides for London, Paris, and Scotland, as well as several other guidebooks, helped us decide where to stay. My wife and I both tended to favor staying smaller private hotels over the homogeneous sameness of the large chains, feeling it tends to give a better feeling for he locale and the people, and is often a more personal and friendly experience. It is true that we have from time to time been skunked by this approach, winding up in a place that seemed to be managed by Norman Bates instead of Conrad Hilton, but in all honesty that's only happened very rarely to us. The bit of uncertainty about the quality of the accommodations does add a bit of an edge to one's trip, but for us, the overwhelming majority of the time we have wound up having a very pleasant and positive experience. (I guess find a reliable set of guidebooks also helped in that regard.) So, being generally without U.S. toll-free numbers to call, I embarked on a series of overseas calls, exchanges of faxes, and wire transfers of room deposits with the various places we had chosen to stay. This also gave me my first chance to get a feel for the places and their owners/staff -- did they seem friendly and courteous? In particular, did the hotel in Paris overlook what must have been my stumbling and horribly-accented attempts to converse in French? (They did, and that turned out to be one of the real revelations of our trip: while the French in general have something of a reputation in America of being kind of snotty and looking down on all Americans as boors, I never found that to be so. As the propriétaire d'hôtel explained to us as we sat in the hotel lounge sipping fine cognac late on our second evening in Paris, the French in general (and Parisians in particular) resent the all too common American tourist attitude that everybody there does -- or ought to -- speak English, without making even the least attempt to communicate in French. That's what they consider rude, and rightly so. Our experience was that, no matter whom we were dealing with -- subway conductor, hotel receptionist, taxi driver, waiter, police officer, museum staff, the boucher, the boulanger, and the fabricant de chandelier -- all were perfectly friendly and helpful, as long as our first step was to speak to them in their own language. As badly as we did it, it was obvious that they appreciated the effort.)

Finally, we needed to arrange to rent a car in Scotland. While British Rail does cover a fair amount of ground, many things we wanted to see and do were well outside the city limits, so our plan was to drive during our sojourn in the Highlands (Edinburgh being a fairly walkable city, albeit somewhat hilly). We had rented a car on our previous visit to Scotland, and we knew that especially in the Highlands, sheep tended to outnumber people and cars by something like twenty to one, so there was relatively little traffic and the driving was easy. Again, the guidebooks proved invaluable in navigating the ins and outs of renting a car overseas, and all the arrangements were quickly squared away.

Finally, the last bit of ground transportation we needed to set up was getting to and from JFK airport in New York. I scouted out an airport shuttle bus that ran from a nearby small city in Connecticut to JFK on a schedule that would allow us to make our flight with plenty of time to spare. A quick trip to their offices and I had a pair of round-trip tickets in hand. My parents would take us to and from the shuttle terminal early in the morning following our wedding, and would pick us up from there on our return. So with all the arrangements made, passports in hand, and visas properly obtained and validated, preparations for our honeymoon trip were essentially complete.

I will not on this occasion go into the details of the events of our wedding day; that is a subject for another essay at another time. It will do for now to say that, while by and large things went smoothly and well, there were a few of the usual wedding glitches -- and a couple of unusual ones as well -- but nothing serious enough to prevent us from having a wonderful day. Given the lateness of the hour before we would get to bed that evening, and the early hour we would have to get up to leave for the shuttle bus, my new wife and I decided to forego much of the traditional wedding-night activities for our first night in London instead (although we did allow ourselves a brief congratulatory bit of lovemaking to seal the deal, as it were). Then all too soon it was get up and head off to the airport.

Although it runs counter to the popular wisdom, my personal experience with flying to England is that I do better departing the U.S. in the morning, flying during a somewhat abbreviated day in terms of my biological clock, arriving at the hotel in the evening, and going promptly to bed; the next day I can wake up without feeling jet-lagged at all. The downside, of course, is that you spend a "day" on the plane, so I can understand why business travelers prefer departing the States in the evening, sleeping on the plane, arriving in the U.K. in the morning, and getting straight to work. Unfortunately, I've never been great at sleeping on airplanes; I tried this strategy once but was so exhausted upon my arrival in England that I wasn't able to function very well the next day.

Our flight to London was uneventful, although there were some geopolitical circumstances that day which made the trip memorable. That day, British troops recaptured Port Stanley, the capital of the Falkland Islands, from Argentinian troops which had overrun the Falklands several weeks earlier in a territorial dispute with England. Because we were flying on British Airways, the crew announced this over the plane's PA system, and, to the cheers of the (mostly British) passengers aboard, decided to serve a round of champagne to everyone. Well, it was clearly a case of being in the right place at the right time (I imagine the news was not even mentioned on any Aerolineas Argentinas flights that may have been in the air at that day), and there are far worse ways of commencing one's honeymoon than with some complimentary champagne.

Our arrival at Heathrow and making our way through customs went quickly and smoothly. We gathered our suitcases, and headed out to the taxi stand to hail a cab for the trip into London. A driver pulled up, asked where we were going, and asked if we wouldn't mind sharing the cab with two passengers who were going to another hotel in the same part of the city. That was no problem for us, and so with luggage safely stowed, we climbed into the spacious cab and started into London. It turned out our fellow travelers were two businesspeople arriving for a conference the next day, and who, like us, preferred to arrive the night before an get some rest before heading into the meetings. When asked about why we were coming to London, we received the first of many congratulations and good wishes we would be given on our wedding. We had just started telling them about our wedding ceremony when suddenly there was a loud BANG and the taxi lurched to one side. The cabbie quickly pulled off the highway and stopped in a parking lot -- in front of a small pub. "I think I may have a flat tire," he told us. "But you fine people can wait in here while I work on it." And with that, he escorted us into the pub. He told the barkeeper about our circumstances, and at once the barkeeper refused any payment from us, instead announcing to those present that we were a newly married couple just arrived from America to spend their honeymoon in London, and asking one and all to raise their glasses to us. Amid the cries of "Cheers!" and "Good Luck!" from the crowd, we toasted everyone in return and had to smile at each other. What could have been a problem and an inconvenience was instead turned into an unexpectedly enjoyable experience.

The cab driver soon had the flat repaired and we were back on our way into London. We soon arrived at our hotel, the businesspeople having insisted that we be dropped off first and then refusing to allow us to pay for our share of the cab fare. ("We put it on our expense report anyway, and it didn't cost anything extra. Think of it as a wedding present from Smith-Kline Pharmaceuticals to you.") Having been spared any out-of-pocket expenses so far, and feeling in a particularly expansive mood, my tip to the cabbie was especially generous. The check-in at the hotel went quickly and smoothly, our bags were brought upstairs to our room, and my bride and I were left to engage in those most enjoyable aspects of married life to which our newly minted status entitled us to indulge with full societal approval, as the chimes of Big Ben in the far distance tolled the passing hours, and Londoners all around us enjoyed their restful slumbers.

(To Be Continued)