Continuing with my travel essays series, this week I bring you: how a week in the tower room of a French chateau with my sister taught me the secret to family harmony.
A few years ago, my aunt won a free week-long stay in a chateau in the south of France. She asked me if I wanted to come. I assume it was a rhetorical question.
My aunt was allowed to bring up to eight people. These people ended up being her own family, including her teenage son, some cousins on her husband’s side I had never met. And we had a spot for one more. So she invited my sister.
My sister and I love each other. We also fight like sisters. We hadn’t been on vacation together since we were very little and had our parents around to mediate. This was going to be interesting.
First test: the flight. We had a five hour layover in Portugal before we arrived in Toulouse, and I was thinking that if we didn’t kill each other on the flight over, surely it would be because we were saving it for the hours between five and ten AM spent in the Lisbon airport. But oddly, my sister let me have the window seat, which prompted me to give her the armrest. Once we arrived in Lisbon, I nearly made fun of her for choosing to put Bailey’s in her airport coffee at five AM, but I decided to hold my tongue. I was too tired to get into a fight.
Second test: We were sharing a room at the chateau, the one all the way up in the tower. We hadn’t shared a room since middle school. What’s more, we were sharing a bed. Surely, some fights were to be had here. But as it turned out, we each preferred a different side of the bed. We have similar habits when it comes to messiness: make a mess now, clean it up later. We both liked sleeping with the window open, the French countryside breeze washing over us as we slept.
Third test: My aunt put us on a schedule most days: wake up, have breakfast at the chateau, then head out to explore the nearby towns of Mirepoix, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Avignon, among others. Each morning, I would set the alarm and get up and shower first, then when I was done showering, come back and wake my sister for her turn. After three days of this, I started to get annoyed.
Why do I have to be the responsible one? I thought, watching her sleep through the first alarm. I know I’m older, but she’s in her twenties now. The alarm-setting and the showering first shouldn’t always fall to me! No fair!
I showered angrily, prepared to argue with her when I got back to the room. But then a strange thing happened. I looked at my sister asleep in the four-poster bed in this princess bedroom at the top of a tower in this chateau in the French countryside. I felt the breeze from the open window, watched the ivy dancing on the walls outside. And I realized I didn’t feel like getting into a fight.
And so, I didn’t.
The rest of the week proceeded in a similarly peaceful manner. Whether it was deciding which seat to take in the van, or whether to have a second glass of wine or go explore that old church across the street, if there was a minor disagreement–of which there were surprisingly few–one of us would back down.
Then came the true test: on our second to last morning in France, we overslept, and in our rush to get ready, I spilled my foundation on my jeans. My aunt had already called up the stairs once, asking us to hurry up.
“I need to change,” I said.
“There’s no time!” my sister snapped. “How could you sleep through the alarm? And why are you taking so long to do your makeup?”
I could feel it rising up inside of me: the argument for the fact that I was the one who had woken us up every day the whole entire week and she was the one who had an interminably long morning routine and could she take responsibility for something for once in her life?
But oddly, I found I didn’t want to argue.
“Why don’t you go tell Aunt Lisa I spilled something on my jeans and I just need to clean it up and I’ll be right down?” I suggested calmly.
Even more oddly, she did as I suggested.
And all was well.
We had an amazing time on that trip, and not just because of the fairy-tale chateau. But because I learned something I wish I would have figured out far earlier in life. It would have saved us a tremendous amount of family drama.
That the key to not fighting with my sister is … not fighting with my sister.
Image taken by me, middle-of-nowhere-France, 2011.