Spoiler Alert! This story contains blood-thirsty insects. It also ends with Santa Claus.
We rolled into Paris on December 30th at half past six in the evening... exhausted, frustrated and ready to unwind. Our Thalys train ride from Amsterdam had been just shy of complete disaster.
Ten hours earlier we'd arrived at Centraal Station in Amsterdam. It was 8:15 and we'd come by tram that morning to board our 9:00AM train, but we could not find it listed on any display.
Leaving the family standing in a huddle of luggage and energized children, I went to inquire. "That train has just been cancelled, madam," a representative at the international ticket desk informed me. "You must now pick it up in Rotterdam. It will not arrive at this station."
Without pausing for any response, she gave me a series of rapid instructions. We were to wait on platform 15. A train to Rotterdam would soon arrive. We would board this train - even though we had no reserved seats on it. We would take the train and make a transfer. There would be only a few minutes in Rotterdam to catch our Thalys train.
The lady seemed so nonchalant, as though this was no big deal. I looked her squarely in the eye. "I am traveling with three children and nine bags. Our train has been canceled?!? This is not a simple thing. You should inform your passengers when schedules change like this. We've had these tickets for months."
Hustling back I grimly rallied my husband and children and we hurried to platform 15. Within minutes it was clear that we were not the only people in our situation, in fact, the entire platform was filling with other passengers who were supposed to ride with us to Paris. In a short time more than a hundred travelers were waiting with us.
Yet when the Rotterdam train arrived, it was not empty! Nearly all of its seats were already filled with passengers. We were quickly herded on board by station agents. In the shuffle and pushing to get onto the train, the children and I were separated from Señor Aventura.
We found ourselves crammed into a sea of luggage, with no room to move and certainly no seats.
The Scientist tried to look for seats in the adjacent car and didn't return for almost ten minutes. My heart beat rapidly as I tried to scan the passageway from where I was stuck like sardines with his brother and sister. "Where is he?" I worried.
Finally his head reemerged from the crowd. "I couldn't get through all of the people to come back to you before," he explained.
We were now standing in the small passage with eight other people and at least twenty bags.
"Where is Daddy?" whined Little Angel.
"I don't know," I frowned. "He disappeared in that big line of people. I'll try to text him."
I pulled out my cell phone and noticed that a WhatsApp message had already arrived from my husband.
"Is everyone on?" he'd asked.
"Where are you?" I responded. "Yes, we are on board but there are no seats. Standing."
"Okay, I'm in and standing too. Looking for you. As long as we're all on, it's ok."
"We're at the same place we were the last time I saw you, same car," I told him.
"I can't really get through to you," he replied a few minutes later. "It's very crowded here. I can't move."
"Same. Guess we'll see you in Rotterdam."
For the next thirty minutes the children and I leaned carefully against all of the luggage, trying not to bump into any of the other people who were standing with us. A tiny curly-headed boy hugging his French father's legs nearly got stepped on by a tall Dutch woman wearing a huge jacket.
"Hey lady!" his father snapped angrily at her in English. "Don't you see there's a kid right here?"
From behind I watched them and realized that actually, there was no way she could have seen the little boy. We were all pushed so close together, the woman couldn't turn around. The man must have realized this himself because he picked up his little son (maybe about two years old) and held him closely for the rest of the ride. The train took one million years as it trundled toward Rotterdam.
We were dropped unceremoniously at Rotterdam station. Swarms of travelers huddled in groups waiting for the Thalys train to arrive.
We managed to reunite with Señor Aventura on the platform. When our Thalys train finally arrived, the five of us boarded together with all of the other passengers. We tried to get our luggage into the racks before they were full, and looked for the Thalys seats we had pre-reserved.
Yet when I found what I thought could be our seats they were full. The people sitting there smiled at me but did not offer to help. They pointed in the opposite direction. So, I turned and trudged carrying two heavy bags down the length of the next car over, looking for our seats. After a full ten minutes of pushing my way through the next long train car with bags and kids, and then being instructed to turn back, I finally realized that those smiling people had been sitting in our seats after all!
By the time I got back to the red plush seats, I was pouring sweat and highly frustrated.
"Excuse me," I said in a mix of English and French. "You are sitting in our seats. We have the tickets for these seats. I have them right here." I pulled my husband over to help me with the problem.
We showed the people our tickets which corresponded perfectly to the seat numbers, and when they were hesitant to move my husband called over a train representative. After checking our tickets the Thalys rep asked to see the tickets of the adults seated on both sides of the aisle.
It turned out that NONE of them were sitting in the correct seats! They all frowned sheepishly and reluctantly gathered their belongings, clearly disappointed that they would have to move... but without any apology for sending me our family off in the wrong direction.
All innate warmth and empathy had by now fled from me. The children and I were sweaty, hungry and exhausted... and our new train to Paris was now running nearly two hours late. I'd paid good money to reserve those seats all together and honestly, the people who'd taken them (whether by accident or lack of caring) were just going to have to find their own way. Period.
Several hours later we arrived in Paris. La Familia Aventura was disheveled, grumpy, starving and eager to get a good night of sleep.
Our Parisian AirBNB was located in a quiet neighborhood in the 15th Arrondissement, not far from the 7th. I'd never been to this part of Paris before, but the apartment was advertised as having a nice view of the Tour Eiffel. Since we didn't plan to go out on the town for New Year's Eve, this had sounded wonderful. "We can toast as a family tomorrow at midnight as we watch the Eiffel Tower light up!" we'd agreed. It had sounded romantic and fun.
When the taxi driver brought us to the nondescript building in the 15th, I didn't worry too much about what it looked like. Often in Europe the exterior of a building might look run down but inside, its apartments are wonderful.
This apartment itself was very small, but functional. We noted two tiny bedrooms and a pull-out couch, a teeny kitchen about five feet long and two feet wide that had all of the necessary appliances and one full bathroom. It would be snug, more so than we'd imagined, but that was fine.
"I'm so glad to be here!" I mused to our AirBNB host. "What a day! We are ready for dinner and sleep!"
"You will love Paris," she promised us. "Tomorrow there will be much for you to do."
Our host was a young woman in her early twenties with long curly hair. We got the strong sense that she either lived in the apartment or it belonged to her family. She could have been a college student or a young professional. The refrigerator was full of magnets with adult humor that scandalized our children, but overall the apartment itself seemed just fine.
"I'm so hungry, Mom," announced The Scientist and he promptly devoted himself to finding us a good local restaurant. Within thirty minutes we'd walked four blocks through the biting cold and were seated in a warm Indian restaurant (our new favorite cuisine!) enjoying a large and savory meal.
Once back at the apartment I started to make the couch up with sheets for my children. We noticed then for the first time that the apartment was actually very dusty. A fairly thick layer of dust was on the coffee table next to the couch, and on the couch itself. "I hope Soccer Dude's allergies don't act up," I murmured, knowing how poorly he reacts to dust. "Let me know if you need any allergy medicine," I hugged him.
Before bed I decided to read for a little while. Suddenly I noticed something moving out of the corner of my eye. It was a small, roundish brown insect crawling across the mattress next to me... perfectly nonchalant, as though I wasn't even there..
"Honey," I called out to my husband in the bathroom. "Looks like the apartment has roaches."
"Really?" he answered. "Well, it is a pretty old building, these Parisian apartments could be three hundred years old or more. I guess it would be hard to prevent roaches such an old place."
"Okay," I nodded, refusing to get upset about the insects, especially since we know roaches can flourish even in the cleanest of houses. "I'm really tired. I'm going to sleep now."
I tried and tried to sleep, but I just couldn't get comfortable. To start with, I couldn't breathe well and my head was completely congested. "Darn dust!"
Finally I propped myself up as much as I could and drifted off into an agitated slumber. Yet when I awoke around 3:00am I felt just awful. I was itchy, my head was aching, and I'd been having terrible dreams. "How is it only 3:00?" I wondered and forced myself to try to sleep longer.
At 5:00 I turned the light back on and sat up. "I can't breathe!" I said again. I began to sneeze and sneeze so I got up to get some tissue. As I came back to the bed I noticed another one of those little roaches crawling across the bed, not far from where my head had been.
"Is that blood? Whose blood is that???"
"Wait a second," I thought, bleary-eyed. "I've never seen a roach bleed before. Roaches don't bleed red blood. OMG. These are... NOT roaches!"
After that brief moment of clarity I scanned my exhausted brain to determine what kind of small brown insects crawl across beds and drink human blood.
"OH NO. OH NO! HONEY. HONEY. Wake up."
"Eh?" my husband murmured dreamily.
"BABE. Babe. I think we have bed bugs."
Señor Aventura's eyes opened wide. "What? Bed bugs?"
"Yes. Bed bugs. Look. They're everywhere!" We looked across the bed to see at least four new 'insectos' crawling across the sheets, comforter and pillows. I showed him where I'd smashed the now bloody one. "I think that's my blood," I grumped.
My husband, ever a scientist, handily caught a live bug and began to study closely it for identification. He pulled out his phone and began to read about bed bugs and to compare the insect in his hand to the pictures in the phone. For about ten minutes he was completely quiet, reading and examining the bug.
"Ugh. I actually think these ARE bed bugs," he agreed.
We watched them crawl all over the bed and near our suitcases with a mixture of numb fatigue and horror.
"What should we do?" he asked.
"I want to go home," whimpered Soccer Dude from the doorway. "I want to go back to Barcelona."
"Can we get a refund on this place if we do that?" my husband asked me.
"Yes, I imagine we can... but it will take several days to process. There isn't time to get the money back to find a new rental right now on New Year's Eve."
"Can we exchange our train tickets to go back early?"
"I am not sure, but maybe. It would be worth a try. I honestly wouldn't mind going home either. I'm ready to sleep in my own bed."
"If we've been exposed to bed bugs we should take care of that," Señor Aventura decided. "Do you want to get everything packed up? I need some coffee."
Within thirty minutes the children were up, dressed, packed and waiting by the door.
"I hate Paris!" announced Soccer Dude. "I also hate this apartment!"
"No, we don't hate Paris," his dad and I shook our heads. "We just hate bed bugs!"
We took photos and videos of the bed bugs we'd found and killed in the apartment and my husband even caught two live bugs and left them trapped under a water glass to show the AirBNB host what we were talking about, just in case she wasn't inclined to believe us.
The rest of the day passed by in a very looooonnnnngggg blur. We navigated the Paris metro with all of our bags to get to the Gare de Lyon train station. Temperatures outdoors were -1C and below, but we had nowhere else to wait for our train. We huddled together outdoors near the tracks until we couldn't take it any more, and then we found a Pret a Manger restaurant and bought a bunch of food so we could sit inside of the warm room for a few hours until our afternoon train was ready to depart.
"No more trains!" my husband exclaimed grumpily; he even considering flying home. In the end since we had tickets in hand and were already waiting at the train station it made sense just to board the train and head home.
Our exciting "New Years Eve in Paris" turned into six hours on a quiet, nearly empty train headed to Barcelona. The children read, played games and napped while I scavenged Google.Com for articles on how to cope with a bed bug exposure. Behind Little Angel's seat we heard repeated meowing, and at last a woman with long brown hair down to her waist reached behind the seat and pulled out a very well tended cat who was traveling with her in a soft carrier.
As we approached our final destination we were finally laughing about the bed bugs. We knew we had a long night ahead. "This is WAR!" The Scientist announced with a grin. "We will NOT let evil bed bugs into our home!" We nodded, zipped up our jackets, and put on our best game faces.
How glorious it was to return to Barcelona! As we waited in the outdoor taxi line for our ride home, the children and I exulted in the warm air, the bright holiday lights and all of the smiling people we saw passing by. One man who'd started his New Years Eve celebration a little early was singing cheerfully and toasting our taxi line.
"Look mom, I can't see the cold air anymore when I breathe," noted Soccer Dude.
It was now 20:45 on New Years Eve. Señor Aventura dashed off to buy large black plastic trash bags before the stores closed at 21:00 so we could stow all of our luggage, shoes and clothing in them until they could be properly decontaminated.
Arriving home we huddled in our storage space away from the apartment, sorting laundry, personal items and baggage into different plastic trash bags. We laughed hysterically at the comedic situation and left everything behind but what we were wearing.
We snuck upstairs and entered our apartment single file, went straight to the exterior balcony and stripped off all of our clothing which we then stuffed in trash bags (oh, how crazy that must have looked to the neighbors! "Los Americanos Locos!!!)... then ran straight to the showers.
It was only after we emerged from hot showers scrubbed clean of our long two days of travel, grime, dust, train rides, bed bugs, and various frustrations that we noticed something wonderful!
Both Santa Claus AND the Catalan Caga Tio had arrived on Christmas while we were traveling! They'd left gifts for the children when we were in Amsterdam! In fact, the entire dining table was covered with wrapped presents, candies and more.
"I LOVE NEW YEARS EVE IN BARCELONA, MAMA!" sang Little Angel, who had just received the most special thing she'd asked Santa for this year - a photo of him posing with his favorite reindeer. "THIS IS THE BEST NEW YEARS EVE EVER!!!!!!!!"
As Señor Aventura cooked us a late Spanish tortilla and the children played with their new toys, I stood on our balcony and watched New Years Eve fireworks illuminating the beautiful Barcelona skyline.
"You're right," I smiled and hugged her tightly. "The very best."
The struggle behind this silly pouting face was real! It took us almost a month to get through all of the bed bug avoidance work. These are water soluble bags we used to wash our winter clothes in at 60C. We only managed to ruin a few of our favorite things! Thanks to mattress cases, dry cleaning, diatomaceous earth, a pest control company, vigorous cleaning and one doctor's visit ("Sí señora, those are bed bug bites and not an allergy") we think/hope we've managed to avoid the Parisian scourge. Fingers are crossed!!! The good news - the family in Paris accepted all responsibility and AirBNB gave us a full refund. For which we are sincerely grateful!