Brief note from Work Stew editor Kate Gace Walton: Most Work Stew contributors share their thoughts in the form of essays, but this piece happened to take shape as a Q&A. The back story: I used to have a job that required near-constant travel, and (as my questions will no doubt reveal) I grew to dislike being on the road for work. In large part to temper my own grumpiness on the subject, I wanted to learn how other people experience business travel, and frequent flyer Christine de Brabander gamely agreed to weigh in.
1. You spend large stretches of time traveling for business. How do you feel about these trips: are they part and parcel of your ‘real life,’ or do they seem in some way like detours, or departures, from your real life?
They do not feel like detours at all. This is my real life. I have a job that involves travel. I have a family that works around the travel. I get comments from other women sometimes about my kids recognizing me, or questions about who’s babysitting the kids or how the family deals with all the travel. I’ve asked male colleagues if they get this, and they’ve reacted with quizzical looks and kindhearted responses. They haven’t experienced this, and seem to appreciate that it would make life more complex if they did.
As a wife and mother, there is still an expectation out there that home is my real life, and the travel is a distraction from that path. Men are road warriors, and women are still called upon to be the auxiliary heroines of the home front. And I understand that, because when I am home I definitely feel that the focal point each day is that time from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM when I make everything tick: I prepare dinner, make sure the homework gets done, the kitchen is cleaned up, baths are taken, stories are read, and bedtime is observed. It’s very important, and I treasure it. I can see why people would call that my ‘real life’ and wonder how can I step away from that so regularly. I ‘get’ the question.
On the day before I travel, and up until I am walking out the door, there is an undeniable weight pulling me down for not putting all of those expectations first. That is when I question myself. But by the time I reach the airport I am walking as comfortably in that traveling life as I do in my home life. I think that if the guilt followed me on the travel, if I couldn’t shed it, then it would definitely feel like a departure from ‘myself’ (which, I think, might be what you mean by my ‘real life’). But it feels as much ‘me’ to be traveling as it does to be at home. I really embrace that autonomous part of myself who parachutes into assorted cities anywhere in the world and figures it all out. I can commute solo on trains in Japan where there are not even any English characters to sound out, repeating to myself, for instance, to get off at “barn door + curvy A + spaceship symbol” station.
My lifestyle gives my daughters a different view of how gender roles work. It opens their minds to opportunities they may not have recognized if I didn’t travel. And–bonus!–it has made my husband a much more involved father. He has a great relationship with the girls. Sure, he doesn’t take care of things the same way I would. They’ve eaten a lot of frozen pizza and ramen soup and Fruity Pebbles for dinner, and the girls have had to entertain themselves more. They miss me, but they’ve also confessed that they like the ‘dad time’ they get when I’m gone. I actually think that the forced ‘Mr. Mom’ time with our daughters over the past 13 years has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve given my husband.
I think perhaps he sees my travel as more of a detour for him than I do for me, a departure from his real life. He does not shape-shift as easily and completely into chief caretaker as I do into world traveler, but he makes it work. Each person in our family has a critical contribution to making it work. I am incredibly thankful to have a family so generous in spirit.
2. When you are alone in an airplane or a hotel room, how do you feel? Lonely? Liberated? Both? Neither?
On travel, when I’m through at the office, I am done with my work for the day. I don’t have to go back to my hotel and cook or clean. I can go to restaurants and eat whatever kind of food I choose. Even seafood, which nobody at home likes! There is no drama from somebody else’s day to deal with, and nobody’s mood impacting mine. The TV is off. It’s quiet. I can read a book or go online, whatever I feel like doing. All of that is incredibly liberating.
But I get lonely for people after a few days. I miss getting hugs. Touch is important, and totally lacking during business travel. Even beyond touch, I miss looking into eyes and faces that I love. It’s funny, how hungry you get to look at people you love. The faces of co-workers or strangers don’t have the same effect. I don’t think I realized that before I began to travel, how seeing people you love feeds the soul in a vital way.
The FaceTime app has helped a lot. Voice-only calls can be awkward and stilted. But add the visual, and you are there with the person having a conversation. My youngest daughter and I ‘hang out’ on travel evenings, toting our ipods as we go about what we’re doing, and just chit-chatting as if I were there in the house with her. Last night she had a headache, and I read to her for about 40 minutes while she curled up on the couch near the woodstove. We’re always in the middle of a book together, even though she’s 13 and an avid reader herself. I bring our book along with me, and if we are in the mood then we read, just like when I’m at home.
3. Do you have any interest in exploring your destination when you’re traveling for business–or is it more about enduring your time there and getting home as quickly as possible?
I get very excited to check out a new place, or to go back and see ‘old friend’ sites that I didn’t know I’d get to visit again, such as the Sanjusangendo (Temple of 1000 Buddhas) in Kyoto, or the Duomo in Milan. I have seen some of the most beautiful places–bicycling on Mackinac Island, marveling at the rebuilding of Dresden, dining al fresco on chili crab and fresh mango under the stars in Singapore, or visiting an art museum in Rosario, Argentina. I think it would be a shame to travel and simply endure the time away to rush back home. I’m away regardless, and it doesn’t serve my family any better for me to sit and pine for them, and come home in joyless exhaustion. I have been given one lifetime to experience beauty and to learn about other ways of life. I can use those encounters to instill in my kids an appreciation for other people and cultures, and a healthy curiosity for how others experience the world.
4. I used to travel a lot and there was something about hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet that made me think hard about my choices. My ‘reasoning’ (such as it was) would go something like this: “If my plane crashes and I die, it will be because I was heading to this meeting for such-and-such a client. Is that how I want to go?” Do you ever have such thoughts?
I have briefly entertained such thoughts. But I’m very logical, and so I’ve also thought about how easily accidents can happen anywhere. I’ve entertained the equally valid thought that I have avoided fatal accidents in my local area by being safely up in the sky or walking down a street in France. “Lucky me, I not only get to be in Toulouse, I just avoided a fatal car crash.” If we can crush ourselves with guilt over potential bad choices on the one hand, then we must also congratulate ourselves on obvious good choices that have saved our own lives, right? I mean, I’m here alive today with the choices I’ve made. Would I be if I didn’t travel? That is unknowable.
5. Given that you see business travel as a positive part of your life, how do you think about limits? Is there any amount of business travel that is too much for you?
My threshold for being able to travel and keep a balance in my life tops off somewhere between 30–40% of the time. If I’m away from home fewer than 10 nights a month, things are smooth and positive as I’ve described. If I’m away more than 12 days in a thirty day period, we definitely experience stress. Over the past year, it has ranged from 0 to 17 nights away per month, with an average of 9. On the aggregate it worked, but there were a few tough periods in there where I wish I could have done better for my family. It’s not a guilt-free lifestyle, but there are enough positives that I try not to let the downsides bog me down. A favorite quote of mine, from Hafiz, is “What we speak becomes the house we live in.” I try to keep us dwelling on the bright side. I truly believe that I am a better person because of my travel, and that my family benefits from my being that better person. I’m much less constrained in my thinking, more confident in my own capabilities, and more relaxed because I get breaks from the domestic grind. While the family might say, “We’d prefer you were home all the time,” whether they would really choose that version of me is another one of those unknowable things, because that person does not exist.
6. It’s 8pm and you’re done for the day. Room service, hotel restaurant, or a local hotspot?
The best thing that I’ve ever done on a weeknight after work was to go to Friedrichsbad, the Roman-Irish thermal baths in Baden-Baden, Germany. It’s a 17-step bathing ritual in a “temple to the art of bathing.” Mark Twain described it in a letter to a friend such that, “…you lose track of time within 10 minutes and track of the world within 20…”
What I do depends on where I am, and with whom I am traveling. (For the thermal baths, which are taken in the nude, I went alone. Nudity among strangers was no issue for me, but I would not undertake that adventure with colleagues!) Internationally, I almost always go out to a restaurant with a group. The relationship building with local colleagues happens to a large extent over dinner. All day long we sat in a conference room and were bored or agitated or overwhelmed, but put good food and wine in front of us and everybody just gets happy and talks and laughs a lot. That’s where you learn about the world.
But at least half of my travel is to this one Midwestern city, not a travel mecca, where there is simply not much to see. At the end of my days there, I typically pick up some take-out food and go back to my room to relax – and FaceTime my youngest daughter.
Would you be interested in fielding some questions about your work life? If so, please email me (email@example.com) or drop me a message via Facebook, and we can chat about the precise angle you’d like to tackle. Other Work Stew contributors have found it helpful to capture their thoughts in writing—and the final decision on whether or not to publish will always rest with you.