On the third day of our honeymoon, I knew I was in trouble. I should have seen it coming the minute we climbed into our little Renault Elf after landing at the Brussels airport. My husband went straight for the driver's seat. I tossed my bag into the trunk and sat on the passenger's side. We kissed and buzzed off to find Belgian waffles. We were young lovers on the two-week honeymoon of a lifetime.
Day 2: Rural Belgium. Fields of crops soared past the Elf's windows. So did the cutest little sidewalk cafes and bakeries that probably had warm chocolate croissants. I was getting hungry. "We'll stop and get some bread," he promised. I trusted him. Then another bakery passed by – and another. "We'll stop in the next town," he offered.
I felt stuck in my seat. But he was happy. "We're making good time," he said, beaming, as we passed a horse pulling a cart. We crossed into France. Sunflower fields stretched for miles, bright yellow faces turning to smile at us. Wouldn't it be nice to stop and take a picture? "Oh, there will be plenty of places to take pictures," he said. "Let's keep going."
Day 3: What a gorgeous little town! We had arrived in the dark and didn't realize until daylight that the entire village – narrow cobbled streets and alleys – had been built around a 13th-century chateau. It would be just the first of a string of serendipities.
We awoke early and found only coffee and bread for breakfast. We wandered among the old buildings and then hopped into the Elf. We zipped past a cluster of schoolchildren in their blue and white uniforms, waiting outside a soaring stone building.
I wanted to slow down, to stand next to them, to see their faces and hear their clear French voices. But my driver kept going. My job was to navigate with the map in my lap. I chose a route that looked interesting. "Turn right at the next intersection," I said.
He glanced at the map and turned left. "This looks quicker."
We climbed onto the Autoroute. Cars flew past. I grew tense. We discussed my feelings about our route, and he agreed to return to the slow roads. But we kept going left when I wanted to go right and straight when I wanted to stop and smell – and eat! – the fresh bread.
When we got out for an evening picnic on the banks of a languid river, I burst into tears. "This is not what I was expecting," I moaned.
He reached for a piece of bread. "Are we going too fast? We can slow down if you want."
"No, that's not it. This is not what I thought marriage would be like."
"What do you mean?" He furrowed his brow and paused midair with his bite of bâtard and Gruyère.
"You driving all the time," I said. "I am not used to that." I looked down at my untouched bread. I hadn't expected to eat bread and cheese every day. At night, I wanted to eat in a French restaurant, like those we kept passing. I wanted to sit at sidewalk cafes, facing the street the way the French did. I wanted to stop at the quaint shops and poke around, to take in the colors and textures of the things they sold. I wanted to go right, but he kept taking us left. But it was hard for me to explain.
"You want to drive, then?" He raised his eyebrows and winced.
"No, it's more than that." I had trouble finding the words. "It's driving in the bigger sense of the word. I don't want marriage to mean that you make all the decisions." How bad was this sounding? I brushed at a tear. "I don't want you mapping out the rest of my life."
I don't know why I extrapolated those three days out to cover the rest of my life, but I did. I had grown up in the generation of girls who expected to do it all – marriage, career, family. I had worked in several jobs, lived in several countries, and had no plans to become a passenger. I had already announced I was keeping my name; I hadn't realized what other bits of myself I would need to preserve.
That day on the riverbank in France I needed us both to acknowledge that marriage didn't mean handing over the entire steering wheel. He said he understood. We finished our bread and cheese, toasted our new understanding, and then headed back to the car. He paused.
But I headed for the passenger side. "No, I don't want to drive – literally," I said. "I like watching the scenery, but please listen when I want to stop along the way."
The Elf inched onto the quiet street and found its way to another lovely inn for the night. The next day we entered Paris. We saw the sights on his list and slipped into the shops on mine.
We crisscrossed France, then Spain. We toured a honey cave near France's Rhône River, tiptoed across a vineyard to watch a grape-picking machine, all the while saving time (and money) by eating bread and cheese in the car – my husband's idea, which I agreed to.
We fished in Spain, explored an abandoned village in the Catalan plain, and fell in love with a Basque family's garlic soup. I explored hardware, stationery, grocery, pottery, and secondhand stores. My husband called it "shopping," but I wasn't buying. I was discovering what people sold, what they ate, how they lived.
We finally stopped for two nights on the Mediterranean, nestled into a hillside near Barcelona.
We put about 2,500 miles on that Elf in two weeks. We made good time, and we discovered that we made a great team. We started our marriage with four hands on the wheel, so to speak.
We still do things that way. Now when I want to go right, but he wants to go left, we negotiate.