It wasn't supposed to go like this.
We were supposed to be on a plane right now. Crossing the Atlantic. I should have been sipping a glass of white wine to calm my nerves over the flight. Gripping my arm rest when the airplane hit inevitable turbulence. Smiling bashfully once it settled.
We were supposed to be landing in JFK soon, grabbing a cab to Brooklyn. I'd point out important landmarks to my twelve year old son as we yawned and rubbed our tired eyes. My son... my eldest... The Scientist. The boy obsessed with flight economics who had agreed delightedly at a moment's notice to fly with me across the ocean for a five day journey, just Mom and son.
A close family member of ours has been quite ill for some time. This dear person lives in Brooklyn, a bit over 4,000 miles from Italy we spent most of our summer.
It's very important to me to visit them in person, to give the kind of love and hugs that cannot be shared just over the telephone or via Skype or Facebook.
Señor Aventura had agreed to stay back and care for Little Angel and Soccer Dude.
"We'll be fine," he encouraged me. "You need to go and be with your family now. I'll take care of the kids."
Gratefully, I'd agreed. There is no blessing like the love and support of a kind, decent life partner.
Flights out of Barcelona at short notice were not cheap. The Scientist did some digging though and discovered that by flying out of Milan there were direct flights to New York that cost hundreds of euro less per ticket! It was the difference between 990 and 600 euro per ticket. Wow!
We were headed back to the lake district to spend a few more weeks in Italy anyway. This made the decision a no-brainer. We'd hang out for a few extra days by Lago Maggiore and then fly directly to NYC.
"Wow Mom, my first time ever in New York!" The Scientist grinned from ear to ear as I purchased our tickets. "I can't wait to see our family! I can't wait to see the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty!"
"This isn't exactly going to be a sight-seeing trip," I reminded him gently. "We're going to visit someone we love... who isn't feeling well at all."
"Yes, I understand," he nodded. "That's the most important reason why I am am glad to go. I want to see them. A lot!"
What a strange assortment of clothing we'd packed for the coming weeks!
Brightly colored bathing suits next to shiny black waterproof flats. Quick-drying synthetic beach shorts and skirts rolled up against trendy jeans. Hiking boots, lightweight jackets and pebble beach swimming shoes stuffed in next to "cool tee-shirts" and hip sneakers for my son. We even packed black umbrellas for the predicted 92F/34C rainy New York weather in July!
Our family hit the road and spent two glorious weeks enjoying the Milan and Italian lakes including Maggiore, Como and Monate.
During this time in Italy my incredibly strong and fit husband Señor Aventura also raced in an amateur/semi-pro cycling competition in France called the Haute Route Alpe d'Huez with his close friend from Colorado, and while he was gone the children and I spent delightful, languid days soaking up sun and playing by the shores of Lago Maggiore.
I'll surely be sharing lots of stories about amazing the Italian, Swiss and French towns, beaches and lakes we experienced there for months to come!
At last, however, Wednesday night arrived.
Two days ago now.
Our flight to NYC was scheduled to leave at 10:25am so we strategized. We would wake early at six! Finish packing, clean the AirBNB, and then drive to the Milan Malpensa airport, arriving by 8:30. Señor Aventura, Little Angel and Soccer Dude would hug us goodbye and put us on an American Airlines flight to the United States!
Before we knew it, we'd be enjoying a Starbucks latte (me) and hot cocoa (my son) in Brooklyn.
My stomach was full of butterflies for the morning flight. I'm still working on conquering my fear of flying. I seem to be on the 30 year 'conquer-your-fear' plan!
"Can't wait to see you tomorrow!" I texted our loved ones in New York, and then tucked everyone in to try and get some sleep.
What a hot, muggy night it turned out to be in the Italian town of Sesto Calende! Mosquitoes circled our beds like little vampires. Thanks to a somewhat tragic lack of air conditioning, we were obliged to keep the windows wide open... but this left us exposed and easy prey for many tiny, bloodthirsty nuisances.
Around 3:30am while swatting away what felt like the umpteen millionth whiny mosquito near my head, I suddenly heard an insistent buzzing sound coming from the direction of the living room.
"What the heck is that?"
Half asleep and pretty thirsty, I stumbled out of the bedroom.
The buzzing turned out to be a text. I picked up my phone.
"Your plane has been delayed?" asked our family in NYC.
Sure enough. Three other texts were waiting for me from American Airlines.
"Your flight has been delayed." Twice! It was now running SIX HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES late!
"Six hours??!!??" I muttered "That can't be right. I've never heard of a delay that long. What's going on?"
"That seems strange," my NY family agreed.
Internally I groaned, noting for the first time that my stomach was cramping and aching pretty badly. "It's just about 4am here my time," I typed. "I'd better try to get more sleep. I'm going to be a mess by the time we finally arrive in New York. Sounds like we've got a long day ahead!"
As I reached to turn the lights back out, there was a new buzz.
American Airlines, again.
"Flight AA0199 Canceled."
"WHAT?" I sat up straight, no longer remotely sleepy.
"Oh my gosh," I texted my family frantically. "They just flat out canceled our flight!"
"What? Are you sure? Who did?"
So much for going back to bed!
The next few hours were a blur of calling and contacting American Airlines, British Airways, Vueling, and AirBNB... trying to figure out what the heck we were going to do.
"We have just one other flight leaving today from Milan," they told me at American Airlines. "It leaves from Linate airport in exactly one hour. How close are you to Linate?"
"Um," I said, looking down at my pajamas and listening to my sleeping children snore in the next room. "Linate is at least an hour from where we are staying. My kids are asleep. There is no possible way we can get there in time."
"Yeah," the customer service rep from American Airlines agreed, "Actually, you'd have to be there for check-in right at this moment. That won't work."
Calmly and kindly, he recommended I take a full refund.
"I can't process it for you though," he said, "because you bought your ticket through British Airways. So, you'll need to call them for the refund."
I called British Airways and was quite disappointed to reach what was assuredly a call center in India. (I later discovered their off-hours call center is based in Mumbai.)
"Can you give me your record number?" a lady with a thick accent asked me on a line that was crackly, distant and faint.
I gave her the number and described what had happened.
"Can you hold the line please?" she asked and then put me on hold. (It was not really a question.)
A few minutes later she returned. "I'm sorry Madam but I cannot find a record of your ticket. Are you sure you purchased it through British Airways?"
"Yes," I responded with exasperation. "I am looking at my receipt right now. Perhaps you did not understand the confirmation number? I will read it to you again. It's..."
Suddenly I found myself talking to dead air space. Did she hang up on me? Did the line simply disconnect?
"Argh!!!!" I snapped, slamming the cell phone down... and then dialed the British Airways customer service line to wait on hold AGAIN.
This time, blessedly, perhaps because business hours were now open in the UK I got a woman in Britain who spoke English perfectly and asked all of the right questions. "How close are you to Malpensa?" she asked. "Are you able to refund your accommodation in New York? How old is your child?"
She grasped the situation instantly. (Phew!) After we'd discussed all of the complications, she confirmed with American Airlines that our flight had indeed been canceled.
"Honestly madam," she commiserated, "If I were you, I'd take the refund and start over. The first flight I can get you on won't even arrive in Britain until tonight, and the next flight that will arrive in New York won't get there until very late tomorrow. That is a VERY long travel day for you and your son... plus you will still be out your AirBNB expenses, and you are traveling with a young child. By the time you arrive, your little boy will be exhausted and you'll essentially have to turn right around to return to Europe!"
Morosely, I looked at our calendar and agreed. The AirBNB was not available for a later date, and with its "Strict" cancellation policy there was only a slim chance of getting our money back.
Then she explained to me that there was no way they could fly us back to our home in Barcelona... we'd have to return as scheduled to Milan, even though my husband and children would no longer be in Italy. The answer became obvious.
I'd been trying to force everything to work out. Nothing was working.
"So you recommend that I take the refund on this flight and then start over?"
"Unfortunately yes, I do."
Señor Aventura nodded in the background, affirming that he agreed. "Let's cut our losses and move on. We'll find a way to fly you to New York soon."
I sat with my head in my hands, feeling exhausted and crushed. When I looked up, The Scientist was rubbing his eyes blearily. "What's going on, Mom?"
"Honey, they canceled our flight. We can't go to New York today after all."
"WHAT?" His twelve year old face crumpled and he began to sob. "But I've been looking forward to it so much! I want to see our family! You said we were going to New York!"
"I know. I feel the same way." My eyes began to water. Before I knew it, we were both crying.
"It's not your mom's fault," my husband consoled The Scientist. "She can't control airline cancellations. These things just happen sometimes."
"What are we doing to do then?"
"Well, I say we pack up here and drive to Decathlon. It's time to go camping."
"Camping?" The Scientist rubbed his red, leaking eyes and looked up at my husband. "Camping where?"
"We're going to camp in France tonight!" Señor Aventura smiled. "I was going to take your brother and sister camping on our drive back to Barcelona. Now I'll take all of you! I've found us the perfect place, not far from an amazing box canyon and some fantastic natural pools to swim in!"
"Really?" our son sat down and began to look less heartbroken.
"Is Mom coming too?" asked Little Angel, who'd ambled into the room. "To camp?"
"Yes, Mom is coming too," agreed my husband. "Let's go buy a tent for five people!"
"Oh, I'm SO EXCITED!" giggled Little Angel. "I've never gone CAMPING before!" She began to dance around. "My first camping! And mom will be there! Yay!" She threw her lithe little arms around my waist. "I CAN'T WAIT!"
So this is how the Aventura family unexpectedly found ourselves on our way to camp as a family of five in France!
After tearfully contacting my family in New York to explain the flight disaster (and our plan to book a new flight asap) I took a shower and began to clean the apartment.
We packed the car and drove to Decathlon where we bought cheap sleeping bags and sleeping pads for The Scientist and I... we had nothing at all with us, since we were supposed to be on an airplane!
Next, we bought a big tent. A really big one.
Forging ahead we drove northwest for about five hours to Nice. We managed to pick up some groceries in a VERY multicultural Carrefour, where the women were all carefully covered and wore headscarves. More than once I found myself wishing desperately that I hadn't chosen to wear a tank top, as fellow shoppers stared.
"Why can't I speak French when I need it?" I murmured in frustration, remembering the four years I'd spent studying that language as a kid in school. "Why do I have to stand out so much right now?"
As swiftly and efficiently as we could, we purchased ingredients for S'Mores and eggs for Señor Aventura's famous breakfast burritos.
"Can we get ramen with sushi?" asked Soccer Dude. "To have by the camp fire?"
"Um... sushi for camping?" We laughed. Classic Soccer Dude!
Finally, purchases made, we headed up into the mountains and down the tiny twisting roads beyond Nice toward Roquesteron, France.
At last, we arrived at Camping Les Fines Roches, a lovely campground next to a river bed in Roquesteron. It was nearing sunset and we were anxious to get the tent set up before dark.
Little Angel and I helped the boys figure out how to pitch and stake the rather unwieldy tent, and then we cooked a little dinner on the camping stove.
"I can't believe I'm camping!" she said to me about three million times.
"I can't really believe we're camping either," I agreed, "but here we are!"
We finally settled in for the night, and I actually think I even managed to get a few hours of sleep before a rooster began to crow around 5:30am. It crowed every five to ten seconds for about two hours. No big deal. (The boys were ready to hunt it down and eat it for breakfast by 6:15!)
After getting in trouble for trying to light an actual fire ("That is illegal in France in this season!" another camper informed us) we quickly doused it with water and dirt and then used the camping stove, where our favorite mountain man Señor Aventura cooked his famous 'special eggs' with tomatoes, fennel, onions and garlic and wrapped them in flour tortillas for the children.
"These are delicious!" sang out Little Angel. "I can't believe I'm eating eggs on a camping trip! I can't believe I'm actually CAMPING!"
Before we drove back to Barcelona, we went a bit further into the mountains to find the series of special box canyon pools my husband had read about.
It was a gorgeous day. The tiny town above the canyon was sweet and incredibly picturesque.
The journey involved a steep hike down hundreds of feet, until we finally found the base of the canyon below. On the way down I managed to slip thanks to a large mass of slippery, muddy dead leaves and land hard on my backside, twisting my ankle in the process.
Frustrated tears slid down my cheeks. It wasn't just the ankle... not really.
"We were supposed to be in New York!"
I couldn't help but think about my family across the ocean, missing us. We were missing them too.
My eight year old daughter reached out her delicate hand to me, gripping my muddy fingers with her elegant clean ones.
"It's okay Mommy. I'm really glad you're here with me! Isn't this beautiful?"
Seeing her elated face, I pulled myself together. I stood up and dusted myself off. Together we kept going, and at last came to the pale blue green pools my husband had described.
"Mom, look at this tiny frog that just hopped onto my hand!" cried Soccer Dude.
"Mom, look at that dragon fly! I've never seen one like it!" exclaimed Little Angel.
"Mom, look at the clay on the bottom of the pool! It's just like the clay we play with at school!" she added.
"Mom! Can I go explore these pools with Dad?" asked The Scientist.
Looking around at the bright sunshine bathing my kids in its gentle warmth and the surreally clear, clean water of the mountain pool they were splashing in, I finally exhaled.
We didn't make it to New York. The Scientist and I weren't yet with our American relatives. Our family member didn't suddenly recover. This is truth, not fiction.
Yet, we were together with our dear ones. We were here! Standing in a remote, pristine clay bottom pool in the middle of a box canyon in France... watching tiny amphibians and insects swim languidly past our legs. What a surprise!
The world - even with all of its twists and turns and raw imperfections - still manages to awe me with its unexpected beauty.
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