“Can I join you?”
An innocent enough question. At least it sounded that way at the time. Saying yes seemed so natural, as if easy camaraderie were the inevitable outcome of a travel pact.
I was dead wrong.
Best Laid Plans Gone Awry
I had an ambitious summer trip planned. I craved high octane escapism to heal my heart in a thousand ways and erase, however temporarily, the drudgeries of motherly life.
In France, I was traveling with a childhood friend and law school classmate, Jim, a suave diplomat-spy and confidant in all things deeply embarrassing. In Spain, I would rendezvous with my sister, another sure fire partner in crime. Then, she shattered her ankle.
Over brunch one day with Mercedes, a swim friend unhindered by marriage or children, I ruminated over the changed circumstances. Mercedes immediately wanted to join me. She gushed over my meticulously plotted itinerary and exclaimed we would be “perfect travel partners.” With no hint of irony, she said I “completed” her.
That should have been the tell.
And So It Began
It is with some embarrassment that I relate the events that unfolded.
With no sense of foreboding, I flew to Paris to meet Jim, my childhood friend. We strolled companionably through Paris, museum hopping and picnicking in Luxembourg Gardens. There, over crusty warm bread and brie, we commiserated over demoralizing life events, admired the Zadkine statue, and fondly reminisced about past travel adventures.
He quizzed me about Mercedes, wondering if she had the “right alchemy” for our brand of wanderlust. Based on Mercedes’ effusiveness and her own traveling past, I was fairly optimistic.
The next day, we left Paris and traveled blissfully through southern France, reveling in the sites and rejecting as subpar nearly every Rosé we sampled over quiet dinners.
Mercedes arrived to meet us in Toulouse. At first all seemed well. She had her own hotel room, for starters.
Our intrepid trio dined at quaint cafes, day tripped in the midi-Pyrenees, and took evening constitutionals, with conversation flowing as smoothly as the Garonne River. It was exactly what I had envisioned.
Then my beloved Jim left, and the first signs of trouble percolated slowly and inexorably to the surface.
As planned, Mercedes and I drove to Bilbao Spain. The French speaking Mercedes was oddly lukewarm about our pit stop in colorful Hondaribbia.
the colorful Basque town of Hondaribbia Spain — who could resist this picturesque village?
She seemed exhausted after several days of hectic travel and exasperated by a difficult AirBnb check in. At least I could decipher the commercial grade espresso machine for her. (Predictably, I then became the designated barista.)
Bilbao, A Mercedes “Hellhole”
That night, we dined in the atmospheric Casco Viejo. My garlicky paella, stuffed with seafood, was delectable. Mercedes’ pungent entrée didn’t seem to pass the sniff test. It was “too hot,” “overpriced,” and she “really wasn’t that hungry.”
Perversely, although we sat under ribbed-vaulted ceilings in a building oozing with history, meaningful conversation was not on the menu.
As we walked back, Mercedes announced that Bilbao was “just an industrial city” and that she “hated it.”
That raised the hairs on my arm. I thought Bilbao was alive with local energy and only a smattering of tourists. Had we been in the same place? Could she really dismiss Bilbao, with a brusque snap of her fingers, after just 3 hours?
Camel’s Nose Under The Tent
This was the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, a small thing that portends more serious consequences.
Would it get any worse?
I shuddered with foreboding, and tried not to spend every five minutes neurotically contemplating the ramifications.
I called Jim for moral support.
Given her Bilbao animosity, I suggested a couple nature infused detours. Mercedes summoned up the enthusiasm to hike at San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and swim at nearby Sopalena Beach. I was temporarily lulled, thinking she was reasonably content despite the unseemly gritty Spanish-ness of our vacation.
She must have been content with the dozens of photos and videos I took of her — trying to get the perfect angle, the perfect lighting, and make her look slim. It was somewhat draining. I had planned on some experiential mental de-fragging, not on curating the perfect Instagram moment.
San Sebastian, Another Dud
Our day trip to San Sebastian was another dud. Previously, Mercedes had raved about San Sebastian — “I can’t wait to see it … it’s supposed to be so beautiful.”
But reality isn’t always real. Rain and angst dampened our experience at La Concha. Mercedes hated the tourist hordes and declared there was “nothing really to see.” She was even grimly indifferent to pintxos.
I was starving. There is nothing like trying to cheer someone up to stoke a hearty appetite.
The Check Out
And then Mercedes checked out.
I knew she was high maintenance and rather pathologically picky (it took her 10 minutes to order coffee at our ill-fated planning brunch). So I expected some minor hiccups along the way. Sadly, I did not anticipate her dramatic tailspin.
The instant the beach was in the rear view mirror, she was wasted, with the irritability and sensitivity to light one might expect from a hangover victim. Except that she didn’t drink.
Touring quaint villages was too taxing, Google Translate was a “massive hassle,” Spanish dinners were disqualifying late, and the espresso machine was an unwelcome vuvuzela.
The camel was well under the tent.
Death By A Thousand Cuts
I couldn’t pinpoint whether her denouement was due to travel fatigue, that TOM, a subliminal desire for a beach escape, or a general tendency to want mints on her sheets while traveling. Or all of the above. Either way, Mercedes saw only the pointy edge and seemed desperately to want a “vacation from her vacation.”
Or from me.
Had I done something wrong or been insensitive? Was my own behavior bringing out the worst in her? Perhaps my fast paced culture vulture approach conflicted with her slower paced nature loving vibe? No one is completely blameless in a travel disaster, of course.
Yet, she was a decade younger than me and un-burnt by the constant nicks of family strife. Why so much ennui and unpleasantness on what should have been a fun-filled adventure, every detail of which she had pre-approved?
That evening, almost as if on cue and as I had dreaded, Mercedes snappishly announced that we were “incompatible.” I was a night owl; she was a morning person (although I woke before her each day). I liked Spain; she preferred France (I saw no reason not to love both). I liked cities; she liked beaches (we weren’t on a beach vacation).
I clearly didn’t “complete” her.
All vestiges of our initial idealism had rotted into bitter memories. It was death by a thousand cuts, our friendship slowly eroding.
5 days to go …
Still bound together, however unwillingly, by our battered itinerary, we arrived amid strangled silence in the beautiful city of Oviedo in the Asturias region of Spain.
Mercedes’ first order of business was to head straight to the market to stock up, enough food for an army or so it seemed. I won’t lie. I was stunned as she aggressively loaded the grocery cart to overflowing. She even bought instant coffee — surely the act of a desperate woman.
The whole time, Mercedes was mute, marinating in barely concealed resentment. I could feel her brain hissing and crackling. Our trip, it seemed, had degenerated into a gunky horror show.
Anyone who regularly argues with a blockhead nemesis knows that reversing mental gridlock is usually a hopeless task.
It could have ended differently, all travel stories can. But this one didn’t.
Mercedes stayed, sloth-like in our AirBnb, winding down to pre-steam pace. She rejected all restaurants and bailed on day trips.
I soldiered on, imbibing the local Asturias cider as I went, partly for fun and partly as a balm against Mercedes’ palpable misery.
I drove solo to nearby villages. It felt like a monumental act, but I could feel my confidence surging with each mile.
Travel is as much internal as external. Although my vacation had broken bad, I was happy alone (though I missed my easy camaraderie with Jim). Mercedes had been oppressive; now I was free to fly. It was a wicked eureka moment, and I took full advantage.
Then, on our final day, with an eye-catching tour of coastal villages planned, Mercedes unleashed one final blow: “I want to drive straight to my airport hotel outside Bilbao.”
Are You Asking me To Skip My Vacation?
Those seemed like her first words in several days. It was almost an order.
I pondered it briefly, with some natural resentment at her self-absorption. This was my rental car. I had done all the driving, parking in tiny spots, navigating through confusing Spanish streets, and submerging into dimly lit subterranean garages that Mercedes described as the “gates of hell.”
Though I appreciated the Rodin metaphor, I was fed up.
The Break Up: A Solo Traveler Is Born
And so, with a tiny pinch of f*ck you, I declined to waste my last day on the coast of Spain.
Mercedes summoned a cab with all due dispatch (ironically using Google translate), and vanished.
Though a bit fearful that our now gossamer thin friendship was history (it was), I carried on in my new spirit of self-determination.
A solo traveler had been born – unhindered by a gloomy hypochondriac naysayer and with only a niggling twinge of guilt. I had come seeking to heal my heart and for some cultural solace, and had left with a new identity.
After my homecoming, I promptly planned a solo trip to southern Spain. I had liked the Spanish-ness of our trip.
I guess I have Mercedes to thank.
Our ill-matched travel fiasco had banished my former distaste for solo travel. I was on my own (except for the usual adulting). And, like a docent at the Louvre, my mind fondly whispered that I was up to the task.