Why a Fight with my Boyfriend’s Aunt Might Make You a Better Traveler

Today I’m supposed to be writing a tip about how to share your finances while traveling as a couple… That was the plan.

That was how we’d planned it out according to the messy little hand drawn calendar Gabriel and I wrote out yesterday to try to get ready for our road trip around the island.

But then something happened instead. I woke up this morning to his screaming aunt while trying to fry my eggs with love, and the whole direction of the day changed a little bit.

Ok, a lot.

So today I won’t be writing a tip about finances, I’ll be writing a story about roommates and family, and how I think it relates to travel. While I wish it were a tip, I don’t really know that I’m an expert on resolutions as much as storytelling.

About a year and a half ago I moved in with Gabriel after coming back from my Central America run. We settled into his parents’ house here in Cabarete which is lived in and taken care of by his aunt and uncle, on his father’s side.

At first it had its ups and downs as Gaby and I ironed out our issues, and as we learned to maneuver around the house rules that had been made clear, like no sleeping in his parents’ king sized bed before marriage.

Mostly at this point though, his aunt had been very patient with the whole thing, more patient than I think I would have been if someone moved into a house I’d been accustomed to living in alone for over 20 years.

Once Gabriel and I confirmed our long term commitment to each other and we came back from a quick visit to the “real world” we thought we would be living here pretty permanently, and started acting accordingly.

We kind of muddled everything up. We started trying to grow a garden where there had been nothing but grass, I renovated a whole room in the back where I planned on plopping in a sewing machine and work studio, we took up half the fridge, I came home late, working at a bar until 4 am at the time, Gaby left the house early, working at a surf school at 6 am at the time, friends came and went. We muddled everything but she took it well. At this point I thought of her as a sort of fairy godmother.

She was good at telling Gabriel plainly what she saw he messed up on but I would not necessarily note out loud to him, and doing the same with me. She told us when it was time for her to stop cooking, not because she didn’t like it (she loves cooking for Gabriel) but because it was time for us to be a couple, and live like one. She delt with Gabriel’s demands to quit smoking in the house while he was there, which interrupted her normal regular morning routine with her coffee.

It all felt like that kind of hustle and bustle of positive creative change where everyone loves, respects, and supports each other, wishing nothing but the best changes for each other and their environment.

Well almost. Gabriel’s aunt and uncle have a complicated relationship, which delves beyond the scope of this blog, but it wasn’t rare to come home to the two of them in the middle of a screaming match. Besides that, things ran mostly smoothly. So I thought.

Things start to change when you live with people for an extended period of time though. You start to see things people do on a daily basis as a trait of their character, something that makes them who they are, something that can’t be changed. Also, you start to settle into you as you actually are, not as the face you put on when you’re visiting, or someone’s visiting you.

Needless to say, relationships started getting more complicated.

Gabriel started seeing traits in his aunt he was less than pleased with, and vice-versa. I’m sure the same happened with me, but it’s hard to judge objectively.

To make a long story short, slowly over the last year and a half, the love’s been disappearing, and my future husband’s relationship with his aunt is starting to resemble that which she has with his uncle: sour.

Now I’ve not been a perfect angel either, at times being blind to things that were expected of me but never stated, or, on more recent accounts, misdirecting my anger at the world and bringing it into the house. In this very specific instance I was upset for a couple of days after my motorcycle was stolen, and took it out on the house, not its inhabitants per se, but going around slamming doors at the slightest stressor.

Now here’s the problem when things are expected, but not stated; or when things upset, but aren’t discussed. They build, and build, and build, until they blow up.

For a year and a half, little “obnoxious” things I’ve been doing, and Gaby has been doing, haven’t all been expressed. For a year and a half Gabriel has been harboring emotions for his aunt which have grown in intensity, but not strictly discussed. For a year and a half passive aggressiveness has been eating away at the shield of love that protected all of our egos. With love goes respect and trust, and slowly over a year and a half, feelings have been more and more upset, and exponentially so. I recognize this negative spiral from a past relationship.

When you no longer feel loved, and you no longer feel trust, you feel disrespected, when you feel disrespected, it’s easier to disrespect, and the snowball builds.

Until it blows.

And this is exactly what brings us to this morning.

keep calmThis morning Tia Maru not so nicely expressed her discontent with some of the most recent happenings about the house.

Then Gabriel got involved and started yelling his two cents.

I stopped it all by yelling louder than everyone and starting over with a civil conversation and a shared cigarette with his aunt while he did his thing in our bedroom.

I tried to make it clear that for me, there was no disrespect, that any that did surge was inevitably from “not knowing better” as they say.

We seemed to make headway, but the conversation still ended with Maru letting me know that she was considering moving out.

Why do I share this story with you today, on a travel blog?!

This after all is just complicated family issues, has nothing to do with traveling, and it’s private matters which should be dealt with privately.

Well, not really.

When we go around traveling the globe, we are temporary residents in a home which is not ours. This is obvious, yes, when we, for example, couch-surf and invade someone’s personal space. But it’s bigger than that.

As complicated as it may seem at times, couch-surfing might actually be the least invasive of all stays, because we’ve been invited, by individuals with no other motives than to get to know other people. They expect no compensation other than your company, your awkward company is their reward.

It starts to get complicated when you are paying for your room.

I stayed with a family in Granada, Nicaragua for 3 weeks, for a small amount of money in return, and I won’t lie when I tell you that I wasn’t exactly sure what was expected of me as a “guest”

How late do I come home? How early do I leave? Do I offend when I don’t eat breakfast at the house? Do I offend if I don’t get the neighbor to do my laundry? Do I call if I plan on not coming home?

Where are the lines?!?

How do you weed out cultural differences from personal preferences?

What’s responsible travel etiquette?

The simple answer is “Make it clear”

At the beginning of your stay, clearly ask “What is expected of me?” “How would you like me to behave?” “How are things done here?”

That is something that I failed to explicitly do when I moved in to the family house, thinking that I could rely on Gabriel to tell me how I should behave with his family and in his home, forgetting that maybe he wasn’t too sure himself.

That might have made things run a little smoother, but maybe wouldn’t have done the whole job. Sometimes, even if you ask, things just aren’t said. Sometimes things seem obvious to some people, so obvious that it would be ridiculous to state them blatantly.

An english speaker going to France might offend his company if starting to eat before the polite “bon apetit” but such a concept doesn’t even exist in the English language, how would one think to ask about something they can’t fathom, and how could one not be offended by something so blatantly obvious.

One people’s, or one generation’s, “politeness” and “common sense” might be completely foreign to another people, and this is what makes interpersonal relations both extremely complicated and interesting at the same time.

When we travel, even if we stay in a hotel where it’s very clear that we expect clean sheets in exchange for pay, the disentanglement of cultural differences versus personal offenses is a very difficult and interesting task. One that guide books might help you disarm on the surface, but usually not completely and all the way through.

Sure, the Lonely Planet told you that the sense of personal space was completely different in Japan. Does that mean that this guy next to you on the packed subway is actually trying to rub up on you, or just that he’s abiding to cultural norms that are foreign to you.

Yeah, this travel blog you read told you that some of the boys in the Dominican Republic are “sanky pankies” who are simply after your passport. But this one boy actually seems to be really into you! Are you making it up?

The way I see it, when we travel, we are all metaphorically like I have been for the last year and a half, a stranger in a foreign house.

It’s our responsibility to try as hard as we can to try to respect and understand the rules under this new roof, and in turn to be clear as to what is completely beyond our threshold of comfort and acceptance.

It’s already very difficult to do it well when the relationship is one on one, but even more so when the relationship is one on a whole culture.

And it becomes more and more difficult the longer you stay.

When in Rome, do as the Romans they say. But exactly what does it mean to be a Roman in Rome? And how does that change when Rome’s entire economical environment depends upon traveler dollars.

Are you getting big smiles when you travel because people are friendly or because you look like a walking ATM?

How does the culture YOU bring into this new house change the house? Are you wiping you feet of all the proverbial dirt you’re bringing from outside before trampling all over this foreign floor? If you stay there long, are you getting comfortable and putting your feet up on sacred ottomans that were never made for feet? If you stay there long, are your hosts getting tired of putting on a face and trying to show you that you’ve extended your welcome?

We’ll never all be perfect travelers, just like I apparently have not been a perfect roommate, but the more we try to understand the “other’s” point of view, the more we try to be clear on what we expect and what is expected of us, the more we try to see that our very presence disrupts the status quo which existed before we arrived, the more likely we are to meld cultures amicably instead of clashing and letting culture shocks turn into culture gaps, and culture fight, and culture wars.

Here in Cabarete a lot of travelers stay. The government likes gringo dollars and it’s in its best interest to make it very easy and painless to have foreigners of more affluent countries feel at home. That and the complete lack of rules (which sometimes make me feel like I’m living in a Dominican and somewhat more modern version of Deadwood) have created a strong expat community here, as well as a lot of other beach towns around the island.

It could be argued how well the new community has integrated itself to its new “home,” it’s not my place to judge, I’m just here to suggest that not only do we as individuals resemble guests in a new home, but that we as a community do as well.

Today I’ve asked my future husband and his father’s sister to resolve their differences so that we may go back to living in a house full of love like it was at the beginning. I’m hoping it will work out because I personally, despite her occasional shortcomings, find her to be a great addition to my family life, and I’d hate to have to part ways on bad terms. I’ve done what I could so far to resolve my differences with her, but in this case, it takes three to tango.

As I sit here writing this post to the ether-web like a message in a bottle addressed to no one in particular, I can’t help to ask myself how I’ve failed the local community and what secret feelings are harbored against me and mine which have not yet been brought to the surface, if at all. I ask myself what it is that I’ve neglected to see in my actions that have led to the lackluster relationship between myself and the local community these days, especially since the theft of my motorcycle.

When I first moved here some of the expats I spoke with expressed some negative feelings towards some of the local habits, like how loud music is played, or how the sourness of Bachata lyrics exemplify the toxic addiction to drama that is so rampant within local relationships, just to name two of the not-so-bad examples expats seem to have issues with. I thought I was immune to the grinding aggravation that comes with being exposed to a culture that is different from the one in your head day in and day out.

As it turns out, I am not. A year and a half later, almost simultaneously, I have become disenchanted by my now grinding surroundings, both at “home” in my house and at “home” in this country.

This is the point where my old self would normally succumb to the urge of running away to new pastures not yet grazed and polluted by my presence.

Today, mostly, I just want to learn how to water the grass under my feet right now and make it green again so we can all keep feeding off it happily.

I think it starts by stopping and then reversing the downward spiral of dissipating love. Just like the hole in the ozone, if we stop being toxic to each other, we should be able to build up that forcefield of love and trust that protects our egos which we have been dissolving.

Only time will tell.

Don’t worry the couple finance tips have been delayed but not forgotten. Come back next week to find out how to lay everything out on the table with your lover or best friend before you hit the road so you don’t dissolve the love over something so silly as money while you’re supposed to be having the time of your life in a foreign country.

Sorry for the long rant and tangent, but someone really cool once said “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”

I hope my little hand drawn calendar hasn’t taken offense.

Photo credit: http://www.lawyersweekly.ca/images/ArguingFamily.22.110778.jpg


    1. Hahah, I didn’t want you to say anything :) it’s not about her, it’s about everybody.

      You can go ahead and translate the post for her if you wish. I was thinking about getting Gabby to do it, but it might be faster if you do it ;)

  1. In reading your article, I said to myself, “What does this have to do with traveling” I really like the way you explained. Yes, traveling is not always easy, especially when you want it to be in compliance with other

  2. I think what it boils down to is consideration. Whenever you travel or just plain staying, it is important to be considerate of others. This is not easy as it is difficult to read people’s minds and becomes more complicated when a language and cultural barrier exists, but this is a good reminder to be mindful of others while traveling and staying with other people.
    Traveling Ted recently posted…MacRitchie Park case of the Mondays in SingaporeMy Profile

  3. I agree – it is so difficult when you are in a different culture. One of the other commenters mentioned it comes down to being considerate…but how do you be considerate when the norms and values of the culture and completely foreign to you? What you might see as being considerate, they might take as rude! I like your idea of putting everything out on the table in the beginning and finding out the expectations… but even that in some cases might be seen as rude. So difficult!
    Jade recently posted…Why You Should Visit Iceland In SummerMy Profile

    1. if it were easy it wouldn’t be any fun though would it? It’s walking those grey lines that make you find out more about your norms and where they came from and other’s norms. Get lost to find yourself right?

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