Vacation Fails: From Bedbugs to Broken Arms

I earned the nickname “bad luck traveler” early on. I think it started on my honeymoon when I spent 14 supposed-to-be-glorious days in Maui. Well, I spent 14 days either in the bathroom or the ER. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, there wasn’t much ‘honeying’ going on. Getting sick on vacation or when you travel abroad is no fun.

Since that time 28 years ago (yes! he stayed married to me), I’ve explored the world, often with kids in tow, and we’ve had our share of ‘bad luck travel’ stories. But I’ve learned to roll with punches, even when it comes to getting sick abroad.

Let’s see. Within one month of moving to Italy, I found myself in an Italian ER late at night with my 7-year-old daughter and a broken arm. My husband moved us to Milan and quickly took off on a month-long business trip. My command of the Italian language was limited to eating and shopping. And ordering vino, of course. As I arrived at the hospital, I realized I didn’t even know how or where to park the car (and this was pre-Smart phone GPS). And I had a screaming, pitiful child in the backseat. So I did what any other excuse-me-I’m-a-stupid-tourist would do. I pulled my car up to the entrance, put on my flashers and went inside. It proved to be a great experience as we were quickly ushered into a private room (the diplomatic ID helped) and tended to by a very sweet female doctor. A very sweet female doctor whom we would see again almost exactly one year later with another broken arm. Same arm. Same child. I’m pretty sure that in the U.S., child protective services would have been called in at that point. We’d find ourselves back in that hospital several times over the next two years. Same child. Same doctor. They would later become pen pals. True story. The photo above is my daughter, the day after her broken arm as we were headed on a planned train trip through Switzerland.


Yes, we saw our share of hospitals across Europe. There was the driving trip to Slovenia. Lake Bled was on my bucket list. I had booked a beautiful, historic hotel in Ljubljana and was looking forward to exploring the city. Driving along the A4, queue the child coughing in the back seat. An hour later, queue the fever. We decided to stop at the Air Force base in Aviano where we had base privileges. And medical access. The doctor quickly prescribed an antibiotic, “in case it turns into pneumonia.” We were determined to forge ahead. A few hours later as we crossed the border into Slovenia, the coughing and fever was untenable. I popped an antibiotic into him and we journeyed on. But as we pulled up to our hotel, I realized that dragging a sick child around the city was 1) going to ruin my trip, and 2) not very good parenting. My conscience got the better of em. So I walked into the hotel, played my best parent-with-a-sick-child card, cancelled the reservation (with penalty) and we started the 8-hour trip home. I saw the sign for Lake Bled along the highway on the drive home. Does that count?

Greece was also on our expat bucket list. So we took the $19 flights (can you believe it?!) to Athens with plans to continue on to a week on Crete. I’m pretty OCD about trip planning and have never booked a bad hotel. But there’s a first time for everything. (Anyone seen the movie European Vacation – like that, but worse.) It was late at night so we decided to stick it out for a night. We woke up the next day, Sunday, ready to explore the ancient ruins of Athens. But my son had this pesky itch. By the time we finished breakfast, his itch turned into huge welts covering his body. It was then that I realized he was the chosen midnight snack of bedbugs. Strangely, he was the only one affected. So in my best “I”m a stupid tourist” voice, I went to the front counter to explain our plight. Guess what! ’Bedbug’ does not translate. I got the French-inspired shoulder shrug. Pffft. So we set off to find a pharmacy. Here’s a travel tip: before you travel abroad, read up on the pharmacy ‘rules’. We were told that only two pharmacies are required to be open on Sundays. Again, this was pre-wifi, pre-smart phone. So figuring out which ones were open took hours and it was a planes, trains and automobiles journey to get there for that one tube of medication. Then the fun part came of getting the hotel to switch our rooms. Angry, crying, female tourist does, however, translate. While traveling in countries where I didn’t speak the language, I found that two things work. Charades and crying.

My ‘bad luck traveler’ experiences don’t just happen on the ground. They happen in the air too.
There was the time when I was traveling back to the U.S. alone with my young children. I was sitting in the aisle with my daughter next to me and my son was sitting in the adjacent aisle seat. That’s when the man sitting behind me grabbed my seat and collapsed into the aisle. Followed by the, “Is there a doctor on board?” announcement. I quickly tried to distract my kids as two doctors began working on this man in the aisle next to my seat (sticker books are your friend). And props to the women sitting next to my son who asked if he’d like to look out the window and she switched seats with him so he would not see what was going on. It all ends well. We made an emergency landing so the man could be taken to a hospital (I believe it was a diabetic episode).

On airplanes, I always take great care to ensure my children are comfortable. Well, sometimes. There was the time we were flying home and I came down with the dreaded stomach flu the night before (courtesy of our hosts who had it days before we arrived – Chlorox much?). I have a weird condition – will spare you the details but the name will give you a sense – it’s called cyclic vomiting syndrome, so I have pills to take should I, you know, vomit. But these pills make me sleep. I’m talking dead sleep. So I took one prior to getting on the plane with my young children in tow. The next thing I knew, the flight attendant was waking me up as everyone else had deplaned except me and my children. To this day, I have absolutely no idea who took care of my kids for those three hours. Lesson learned. Of course this flu-on-an-airplane story can’t even begin to top my husband’s ‘food poisoning from Pakistan while flying home with a handcuffed prisoner’ story. It’s hysterical. But only to me.

Life’s little unexpected moments are all part of the journey right? I can laugh about most of them now. I haven learned to plan ahead for things like this Research how the pharmacies work. Have a back up plan for a bad hotel (fortunately, I’ve never had to use this one). And don’t visit friends recovering from the flu!

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