Right up front, I admit that any trip with my husband and kids inevitably becomes some combination of “The Hunger Games” and the “Dr. Phil” show. Whoever makes it to the end, without being killed off by one of the other three, wins. Or at the very least requires serious therapy.
Despite knowing this, I still planned a two-week, family trip to Europe in August of 2011.
It started off well enough. We visited castles, rode gondolas, and took pictures of each other holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. No one minded that there was a sweeping heatwave that made everything feel as though we were competing in a decathlon held on the end of a blowtorch.
We laughed when there was no ice in our drinks, seats on the toilets, air conditioners in our hotel rooms, or screens in the windows. We were in Europe! Ciao! Prego! Guten Tag! LOL!
Things began to unravel when my husband forgot to program the GPS and we drove 70 miles the wrong way before figuring it out, and then nearly had a full-blown domestic incident on the Autobahn.
Then during a breathtaking hike along the Mediterranean coastline, my 14-year-old, or as we call her, “The Weakest Link,” spent 5 of the 6 miles plaintively asking if she could go home, or at the very least, text, while our 16-year-old walked with another tour group entirely and pretended she didn’t even know us.
But, ultimately, it was the hurricane that was our demise.
Sure, we’d been following the news. But it wasn’t until frenetic weather reporters began predicting that the entire U.S. East Coast was going to break apart like a pie crust and fall into the ocean that we panicked.
Partly it was because our flight back to the states was the same day Irene was expected to hit. But mostly it was that, deep down, we all understood that if we were trapped together in a foreign country for any further length of time, not all of us would be returning.
Sitting in a Rome hotel room at midnight, rivulets of sweat running down my back, I listened to our airline’s looped, mimi-keyboard hold music for three straight hours before the call center randomly disconnected me.
I’m pretty sure that I’ve never been closer to needing the services of a criminal defense attorney in my entire life.
After a second attempt, I finally reached an agent who could only find a lone flight to Chicago.
We took it.
The airport looked like one of those disaster movie scenes where everyone is trying to get out of the city with all their earthly possessions. There were throngs of sweaty people, excessive luggage and a one-legged pigeon hopping around.
Our seats on the plane weren’t together. My husband, the lottery winner, sat somewhere in the front, while my daughters and I were assigned to the very last seats, in the very last row, directly next to the bathrooms.
It was like being locked in the trunk of a car for 11 hours with 250 people, all suffering from Marco Polo’s revenge.
Upon arriving in Chicago, my husband went for the luggage and we got McDonald’s. Like animals, the three of us ate in huge bites without speaking. Dragging four suitcases, my husband came back just in time to watch his bag of food dump over and spill out on the airport floor. We averted our eyes and kept eating. No one was going to share.
In a rental car that cost more than our mortgage, we drove straight through to Connecticut.
After days without bathing, we arrived home smelling of gym shoes and hot cheese only to discover there was no power or water. After fermenting for a couple more, my mother-in-law called to say they had gotten theirs back, and that we could come over to shower.
There were no lights on when we pulled in. Apologetically she explained that she had mistaken the sun reflecting on their digital clock to mean that the power was back on. It wasn’t.
In hindsight, it’s all pretty funny and we can laugh about it now. I think that’s because the four of us made it back to tell the story. Depending on what happens the next time, someone might not be so lucky.