That we awoke in Cannes, France today could not have been predicted.
We find ourselves in an interesting position this month, trusting life to take us where we need to be. This is perhaps not typical past behavior for the Aventura family... at home we are organized; we have activities; we have meetings; we have PLACES TO GO. We have plans.
(We are usually running late.)
How many times in the past few days have we said to each other with disappointment, "Oh! It's too bad that this did not work out."
"That would have been so cool!"
"What a bummer."
Yet in the end we are finding that by letting go and being more spontaneous, even when faced with challenges and disappointments, we have some excellent strokes of good luck that lead us to a good result.
For example, when we brought Señor Aventura to the sublimely beautiful Ristorante Grotto Sant'Anna in Cannobio for his birthday dinner and they explained to us that while yes, they did have a table for two, they would absolutely not accommodate our family of five.
We'd driven deeper into the shady mountains behind the lakeside village to find this hidden restaurant, located behind the old church of Sant'Anna.
It was an afternoon choice, the well-reviewed restaurant plucked off of TripAdvisor around 4pm after Señor Aventura had enjoyed a morning bike ride, a family hike, an afternoon on the river and an afternoon vermuth overlooking the lake.
"I'd like to try this restaurant at the Grotto Sant'Anna," he requested. "This is my favorite side of the lake, I like it even better than Maccagno. I'd love to show you more of the river."
My husband thrives off of windy back mountain roads and rivers. He maneuvered Chico Suave capably through a forest and around a multitude of sharp turns along the side of a sheer cliff that had me white knuckling the passenger seat, and pretty soon we'd arrived in the tiny stone parking lot of the restaurant. "This is so cool!" he grinned.
"I'm starving!" declared The Scientist.
"I can't wait to eat here!" agreed Soccer Dude.
Stepping out of the car Señor Aventura soaked in view of the ancient church, waterfall and deep ravine. He looked like he'd swallowed the moon - almost luminous. "Wow, kids! Check out this view! This place is really special!"
It looked like we'd hit the jackpot for my kind husband's birthday.
Unfortunately, we had not.
"No," the waiter shook his head at our family.
"Mi dispiace. Non possiamo accoglierli." (I am sorry, I cannot accommodate you.)
"Si prega, signore - questo significherebbe tanto per noi. E ' il compleanno di mio marito." (Please sir, it would mean so much to us. It is the birthday of my husband.)
He frowned at our three hopeful, slightly wrinkled and very hungry children. Little Angel smiled at him, hopping on one sparkly golden sandaled foot.
"Sì signora, ma non posso fare a voi. Non abbiamo una tabella di questa sera per cinque persone. Solo per due." (Yes madam, but I cannot do this for you. We do not have a table for five people. Only for two.)
"That's too bad," exclaimed Señor Aventura in the kindest way... and for one brief moment the twinkle in his bright blue eyes faded just slightly as he turned and slowly walked back uphill toward our car parked outside of the church. Our disappointed, hungry children followed behind him.
"Please," I approached the waiter once more. "Lei parla un po' di Inglese? (Do you speak any English?)
"Yes," he responded in perfect English. "I speak a little."
"Sir," I tried one last time, looking around at the many empty tables. "We come from very far away. Today is the birthday of my husband and he is so excited to spend the evening at your beautiful restaurant. Is there no way you can please assist us?"
'No, madam," he replied - now curtly. "These tables are not big enough. Good evening!"
I could feel my cheeks flame as I walked away from the group of uniformed waiters in the glorious outdoor restaurant; embarrassed and feeling flat. Stupid, pushy American woman! I imagined they were thinking. Who does she think she is?
"Why didn't I call to make a reservation?" I wondered in frustration, but knew the answer. Making telephone calls in Italian, Spanish and French is so much harder for me than speaking in person. I hadn't made the call because it felt daunting.
"I guess we could just go back to the touristy restaurants on the promenade. Or, maybe we should just begin our drive home around the lake," my husband suggested. "It's a long drive. It would be easier to head home while we still have some daylight."
As he drove us toward Switzerland and through Locarno, I frantically scanned through TripAdvisor on my phone, looking for a solution. "I cannot let his birthday dinner be a flop!" I thought.
Yet the phones kept losing internet. We got lost in Locarno. Our hungry children started to bicker with each other and the acid in my stomach began to churn.
There are probably hundreds of good restaurants situated between Cannobio, Locarno and Maccagno - but we were striking out. Everywhere I called was closed, did not have a table, did not have gluten free options. The sun was setting, and our children were growing emotional in the back seat.
Finally, just when I felt hot tears pressuring the corners of my eyes, I called the Hotel Camin Colmegna, just a five minute drive from our AirBNB apartment in Maccagno.
"Si, signora," replied the courtly gentleman on the other end of the line. "Let us speak together in English. I fear my English is better than your Italian." (Ha! He was right!) "We would be very happy to create a table for your family in thirty minutes. Ristorante Tiffany will be delighted to host you for your husband's birthday this evening."
Before we knew it, we were pulling into the hotel's tiny gravel parking lot. When we walked through the doors of Ristorante Tiffany, our jaws dropped a little.
This romantic outdoor restaurant on the lake must surely have been the backdrop to a film set in the 1920s. White tablecloths flowing to the floor, white candles, white table settings, white flowers. A panoramic lake view from every seat. Twinkling white lights glittered everywhere. Had we stepped into a fancy party or wedding by mistake?
"Wow," said Señor Aventura. "This place is really nice." He sat facing the water, ordered a half-liter of red wine and began to unwind.
"This restaurant is so beautiful! I love it even more than the other one," Little Angel piped up. "It's so pretty, Daddy!"
"I could get used to this," agreed Soccer Dude.
"I wonder how they cook their handmade pasta?" the Scientist studied the menu, already in Master Chef Junior mode.
"Look at that view," I glowed. "How romantic!"
"Good evening, Sir," welcomed our uniformed waiter. "A very happy birthday to you!"
"Molte grazie," Señor Aventura thanked him warmly.
In the end, we enjoyed a beautiful meal (my treat!) of savory handmade pasta, fresh fish, vegetables and salad... desserts for everyone, a small after-dinner espresso... and only a five minute drive home. Life had brought us a better option after all.
On Señor Aventura's birthday we learned that the week of soccer camp our boys have looked forward to all summer had just been canceled at the last minute... much to their disappointment. Apparently Soccer Dude and The Scientist were the only students enrolled. This left us unexpectedly with almost two more weeks of summer.
If we had an apartment in the city and friends to play with, nothing could be more delightful than a bit more holiday fun.
Yet we are told the property management company cannot repair, clean, paint or prepare our new Barcelona apartment until after September 1. Nobody seems to actually know when we can move in. All of their workers are on vacation. (This is widely understood in Spain. Our handful of Spanish friends are also traveling.)
Without a home to return to, and nothing to do in the hot city, the drive home lost its urgency.
We decided instead to take the slow road home, extending our vacation to spend a few days along the French Cote d'Azur. We left our lakeside Italian village without even choosing a specific destination - letting destiny and AirBNB take a hand in charting our course.
The five of us zipped through Italy in Chico Suave, flanked on both sides by gorgeous Italian fields and forests. We passed several castellos and lots of little northern Italian hamlets along our way. Every radio station had more sad news reports of the recent "terremoto" - the tragic central Italian earthquake that claimed nearly 300 lives in Amatrice and surrounding towns.
As we drove, Señor Aventura narrowed our options.
"Right now it's either the Mediterranean or a lake, those are our options," announced Señor Aventura. "It's 32 degrees Celsius (90F) outside and we don't need to be trapped in a big, sweaty city!"
We'd just enjoyed eight blissful days on Lago Maggiore, yet the Mediterranean Sea did sound promising and even exciting. Something new! None of us had ever seen this part of the Italian or French coast.
Yet as the hours passed and we drove through Genova, Sanremo, Ventimiglia, Monaco and Nice, nothing worked out easily. Many AirBNB hosts declined our last-minute requests to stay, and other options were simply too expensive. The narrow streets in each beach town were crowded with tourists and as soon as we'd arrived, we were anxious to leave.
Finally, we got lost in Nice and found ourselves all turned around in a very industrial part of town, surrounded by massive run-down apartment buildings and women spraying our car windshield to try to make income as we waited at the stoplight. It felt a lot like hanging out in downtown L.A.
Señor Aventura and I had both run out of charge on our cellular phones.
"It's like we are traveling again in the 1990s," he laughed. "We will actually need to read street signs, rather than relying on Google Maps!"
"Back then, we would have been driving with an actual map!" I sighed.
At last we found a freeway onramp and followed the blue signs toward Cannes. The sun was starting to set.
After seven hours in the car, our children didn't have much remaining patience.
'What is for dinner?"
"Are we there yet?"
"How much longer are we going to drive today?"
"We will sleep in Cannes tonight, no matter what," their dad and I agreed. "Even if we have to get a hotel room. Or two."
Yet as we exited the freeway in the vieille ville of Cannes, all of the muddiness of our long drive came swiftly into a sweet, clear focus. What a sublimely beautiful city! Flanked on all sides by hotels and the most darling shops and restaurants, the famille Aventura drove deep into the heart of Cannes and felt infused with renewed energy and joy.
"It's SO beautiful here!"
"I LIKE this town, mommy!"
"Let's drive toward the water!"
"I see an underground parking - let's take a stroll!"
"That restaurant looks good. Let's eat!"
In the end we dined al fresco at Le Mistral and found the most charming apartment rental on the Rue Chabaud. Madame Marie, a hearty and no-nonsense blonde grandmother in her sixties, drove an hour down from the mountains to let us into her Cannes AirBNB rental at 10pm. She greeted us with smiles and kisses on the cheek, clean sheets and a detailed house manual itemizing every dish, blanket and piece of furniture in the place.
"The people who live in this building are professionals who work - and so you must try not to make noise after 22:00," she advised sternly. "But DO make a little noise - after all, you are on vacation!" she added with a grin.
Madame Marie was rosy, friendly and bossy all at once... like the grandmother who takes care of you when you've been ill, nursing you back to health with equal parts of love and no-nonsense discipline. She bustled around the apartment showing us how to work the gas, the lights, the laundry.
We slept beautifully on Rue Chabaud, windows flung open to the crashing of the surf; dreaming against the ambient sounds of motorcycle traffic, pop music and the midnight laughter of passersby.
Once again, we'd found our way to a happier ending.
Photos from Señor Aventura's birthday hike to Lago Delio, the afternoon we spent in Cannobio before his birthday dinner... and more: