I’m sitting at the breakfast table in a guesthouse. I’m traveling in the UK but what’s about to happen happens a lot so the location isn’t important.
“Your husband, he doesn’t mind you traveling alone?” the proprietor asks.
What comes out of my mouth and what goes through my head are two rather different things. What comes out of my mouth is, “No, he’s very relaxed about it,” and then I turn back to my breakfast.
What goes through my head first of all is a huge sigh. Here we are again: grown woman gets herself to a bed and breakfast in one piece, thereby apparently smashing the glass guesthouse ceiling. Surely I am not so remarkable, but the frequency I come up against this comment suggests otherwise.
I like to think that the question comes from a kind place – perhaps people feel for me that I’m in a pretty, interesting location and I’m the only one at a table set for a solo outing. They can’t intend it to sound so patronising. I hope they mean it to sound more like, “Next time we’d love to meet your husband too”.
But I am also increasingly of a mind that the question comes from the year 1880, or whenever it last was that young ladies weren’t allowed out without a chaperone and had to do things like rest cures whenever it all became too much.
Is it really so surprising that a woman could combine a wedding ring and wanderlust? And if I wasn’t married, would it somehow be OK for me to be alone? Thinking back to my not that long ago single past, I don’t remember people asking if my dad minded my solo travels (he doesn’t, he thinks they’re great).
The reason it sticks in my throat is that I know, whether he’s in Hanoi or Huddersfield, people don’t ask my husband if I “mind” him being away without me. The expectation is that I am attached to his leading rein but that he isn’t attached to mine.
I am freelance and my husband is not, so when I travel alone it’s usually because he’s in the office and I have taken my office (my phone, a pad and a pen) with me somewhere for a few days. At the weekend he doesn’t always want to go wandering off places and would rather be at home, so I use weekdays for travel.
I find it interesting that the more improbable and challenging the circumstances, the less likely I am to be asked where my husband is and what he makes of whatever I am up to. Hundreds of feet below the earth down a mine in Zimbabwe, no one asked what I was doing there alone, but in a guesthouse in the rural England, say, the question rarely goes unasked.
I wonder if this is because people figure that once I’m down a mine I am pretty far off the beaten path and must be a relatively seasoned traveller, where in a small English town it might, for all anyone knows, be my first ever time away alone. How will I survive?
At our wedding, a friend of ours was talking to my husband and mentioned “her indoors,” which is a very British and rather old school way of referring to one’s wife. “Only the thing with Clementine is she’s never indoors, is she?” the friend said. My husband loves this story, because it says so concisely something that he’s always liked about me. Mind my traveling alone? Not a bit of it. I like to think that when I am away – writing or walking or exploring and hopefully not enduring moderately sexist conversations – my husband’s happy I’m happy.
Every time I travel I hope this will be the time someone asks about my work, my adventures or my plans before they ask about my desertion of my husband; the answers to those questions will be a whole lot longer and a whole lot warmer, I guarantee you. Those are questions I won’t mind