Our make or break holidays that led to long-term LOVE
As a new study suggests first trips abroad are the ultimate relationship test, four top authors remember theirs . . .
ONE in ten new couples split up during their first holiday together, with 5 per cent breaking up before even arriving at their destination. The main reason? Discovering a partner’s previously hidden bad habits! We asked four midlife authors about their own first holiday as a couple — and how they survived it . . . IT WAS FAR FROM PLAIN SAILING . . .
MY GIRLFRIEND Margaret and I had been going out for almost two years and still not slept together.
This was the Fifties, not the 1850s — a long time before sex was invented, according to poet Philip Larkin, who dated it to 1963, the year of The Beatles’ first LP. I suppose in considering it we were ahead of the game, ahead of our times.
I was still a student, in my last year at Durham University, aged 20, and Margaret was in her first year at Oxford, aged 18. One very advanced, enlightened middle-class girl at her college had given her the name of a harley Street expert, Dr helena Wright, who had fitted her for a diaphragm.
The Pill had not yet been invented. I was too scared to use a condom or even be seen in a chemist’s shop asking for one. Anyway, Margaret did not trust me to be able to organise any sort of contraception.
To celebrate and christen the diaphragm, we had arranged to go on our first foreign holiday together: a sailing trip to Friesland in holland with five fellow student friends of mine from Durham. We had to sign a form saying we could sail, which was a total fib, then off we went in our four little boats.
We managed to get out of the harbour and into Lake Sneekermeer. We were progressing quite well when we noticed a monster barge approaching. I said to Margaret: ‘We will tack left to avoid it.’ She said: No, we will tack right.’ As we argued, the barge went right into us.
It hit us in the middle, lifting our boat up high, then deposited both of us in the water, either side of the barge.
We were dragged out of the water and rejoined our friends, but, as our boat was now wrecked, we had to squeeze in with one of our friends, who was on his own.
Our first night of long-awaited bliss was spent crammed into his little boat, which didn’t have a cabin, just an awning you pulled over at night, with this single friend lying beside us.
We did manage it after a fashion, but it was not exactly a perfect beginning to the joys of intimacy.
Nonetheless, we got married two years later, in 1960, the day after Margaret graduated from Oxford. We went on to have three children and stayed married for 55 years, until my wife died three years ago.
Margaret never talked about that holiday without a shudder.
Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies (£16.99, Simon and Schuster).
WE NEVER RAN OUT OF LAUGHTER
WHOEVER said ‘for better or for worse, but never for lunch’ forgot to add ‘or Stansted Airport’. When my beloved and I first got together, we were too madly in love to notice anything but each other. Our first holiday, a road trip through France, came as a steep learning curve, though not as steep as when the brakes on his ancient Deux Chevaux failed.
Not only did the Citroen 2Cv look like a fried egg on wheels, it moved downhill like one. ‘Stop! Stop!’ I shrieked as he pumped madly on the pedal. We avoided the tree, but ended up in the ditch, unhurt, but on the point of our first-ever row.
he is (of course) a brilliant driver: I had failed my test three times. But this didn’t stop me being a nightmare passenger.
My beloved was brought up to command a platoon, ideally of the royal Marines. I refuse, point blank, to do unnecessary physical exercise such as climbing mountains at noon to see yet another ancient monument, but am perfectly happy to sit under a tree as he charges about.
he immerses himself in itineraries and maps, while I have only the vaguest idea where we are headed.
We never quarrelled about money. As he was doing a PhD and I was writing my first novel, we each had £200 for our twoweek holiday.
Our money went on petrol and accommodation — but buying fresh bread and fruit in France is no hardship. Almost everybody is a control freak about something; the question is whether your neuroses are compatible. I do not care about food, wine, sightseeing or fashion if I have sleep, peace, shade and a good book (ideally a detective novel).
he can sleep on any bed, is consumed by curiosity about culture, never minds the hot sun and loves a good book. I travel with a pillow; he insists on bringing enormously heavy works of victorian literature.
he thought suitcases on wheels unmanly, whereas my aim in life is to glide along with minimum exertion.
In the course of this holiday, we each changed to become slightly more like the other.
From him, I learned to be punctual after years of hoping for the best when catching a ferry, train or plane and to always bring a bar of travelling chocolate and proper walking shoes, rather than the elegant footwear I loved.
From me, he learned to shamelessly push single beds together as one, to demand ice in water and (however poor you feel) to tip everyone who helps you.
We stayed in appalling places that would have broken many couples. rooms with Astroturf on the ceiling. rooms facing blank walls. rooms directly over the toilet below — with a hole in our floor, so you heard and smelled everything.
The car was broken into (once) and broke down (twice). At this point, my beloved confessed that, every time he’d been on holiday with a girlfriend, they would go camping. ‘And?’ ‘ It always ended in tears,’ he admitted.
But, without air conditioning or even a cassette player on those long summer drives, we never ran out of conversation or laughter — which, in my view, is the basis for a happy marriage.
And, 30 years later, it still is.
THE Lie Of The Land by amanda Craig (£8.99, abacus).
THE FIRST (AND LAST) AS JUST US TWO
VIANO is the kind of place you don’t think exists any more: a medieval village in northern Tuscany, perched on top of a high mountain. Inhabitants at the last count:
63. We arrived after dark, driving up a steep hill on a switchback road. What were we coming to?
We might as well have been thinking it about each other. He was 33 and I was 30. Our relationship was new; the future had not been discussed.
We parked the car and wandered in the darkness along an old borgo village street to a tiny stone villa, one-up, one-down.
We found the hidden key. It was only in the morning when we went down to the high-beamed kitchen and threw open the shutters to the terrace that we saw the breathtaking view: mountains ranged before us in every shade of green to misty grey.
At sunset, it would become a panorama of orange and purple. It was one of the most beautiful places I had been in my life.
The first holiday you take as a couple is usually the first time you live together, so there were a couple of sticky moments that week. He wanted to play rock music in a cassette player when I was loving the silence.
I was happy with the local inn; he, meanwhile, preferred to drive across Tuscany in search of the perfect restaurant.
But the most important thing we discovered was that we were relaxed in each other’s company. One exquisitely still afternoon, we lay in the long grass on a nearby hillside while he sketched the village and I read a book.
These are the ways in which a relationship is knitted — not by its dramatic moments, but by its quiet ones.
A couple of days into our stay, I went for a walk by myself around the village. It was mid-afternoon and most of the inhabitants were on siesta.
The only people I encountered were three women, all dressed in black, much shorter and rounder than me.
They stopped me and began speaking in Italian. By their gestures, I worked out that they were wondering aloud why a woman of my age had no children. Perhaps it was because I was so strangely tall and thin.
Viano was the first and last holiday my partner and I took alone together. A few months later, I accidentally became pregnant, and the conversation we’d never had about our future became redundant.
We moved in together six weeks before our daughter was born. Another beautiful girl followed five years later.
That first child is a graduate now, and yet we still haven’t managed another holiday alone together. When our girls were small, we revisited Viano, just for an hour, showing them the narrow stone streets.
I like to think we might go back together one day. The old ladies in black will be long gone, but Viano will be as sleepy, a small dream of a place where the future feels unimaginable, but is waiting to be revealed as morning breaks. Platform Seven by louise Doughty (£14.99, faber & faber) is out august 22.
WE PASSED THE BACKPACKING TEST
I WAs returning on the train from the Hay Literature Festival in June 2008 when I found myself sitting opposite a beautiful woman.
We got talking and, the following weekend, Bridget and I had our first date.
During that date, she mentioned she was planning on travelling to India for eight months in the autumn. Within weeks, I had fallen hard in love with Bridget and the idea of being apart from her that long felt intolerable. Bridget felt the same, so we settled on a compromise: she would halve how long she was in India and I would join her for the last seven weeks.
The day before she flew out, I gave her a small video camera and a pack of videotapes (this was before skype and FaceTime) and, while she was in India and I was in London, Bridget and I would film video postcards to send to each other every week.
Finally, it was time to fly to India to join her.
We had known each other only a few months, but we would now be thousands of miles from home in a country that could be challenging at best.
During those seven weeks, we travelled from Dehra Dun on the foothills of the Himalayas to Rajasthan and Goa.
We rode elephants in Jaipur, took a train through Karnataka and soaked up the rays on Palolem Beach in Goa.
We stayed in a bamboo shack with paper-thin walls.
There were not many rows. The biggest arguments we had were when Bridget’s desire for adventure and freedom clashed with my love of routine and safety. she’d want to walk down empty alleys while I preferred the busy streets; she would want to explore cities at night, but I assumed danger at every corner.
I was someone who was used to travelling in comfort and planning ahead, but Bridget opened my eyes to the thrill of backpacking and spontaneity.
Bridget was due to fly home one night earlier than me. I remember saying goodbye to her in Delhi where we were staying in a cheap hotel room that had a bucket instead of a shower.
I missed her the moment she said goodbye.
If our Indian holiday was a test of our relationship, it was one we passed. Bridget and I returned to Britain convinced of the rightness of our relationship — a confidence that was sadly necessary, given the fact that my family were deeply unhappy I had fallen in love with a woman who was neither Pakistani nor Muslim.
Bridget and I married two years later and had two children.
We recently returned to India with Laila and Ezra and revisited Palolem Beach. It felt like a lifetime since we’d been there.
That first holiday in India remains a magical time in our lives, when our love was young and the future an undiscovered country.
SARFRAZ MANZOOR’S memoir Greetings from Bury Park (£8.46, Vintage) is out now. Blinded By the light, the film adaptation of his book, is released on august 9.