Two months ago, I started writing this post. My husband Mariano and I were getting ready to embark on an epic adventure, an eight-week long dream trip recognizing and honoring some huge "Summer of 2023" milestones. My mom, Ginna, was turning eighty, Mariano had recently turned sixty, and we also had a thirteen-year wedding anniversary coming up. Lots of celebrations were in order, and we planned to do it BIG.
Here's what I wrote back in June:
I have exciting news this month! This summer, my husband and I will be experiencing the midlife equivalent of a college student's "backpacking through Europe" —and yes, we actually do have giant backpacks along with our sturdy REI duffles (my 50-something back already hurts just thinking about it). The upside is that now we can bypass the hostels and stay in places with a decent mattress. We can skip the foam clubs with DJ's, go out for a nice beef bourguignon, toast the day over a local Bordeaux, and snuggle into bed early. Yay, middle-age!
We're kicking off our trip with a celebration of my mom's 80th birthday in Edinburgh, Scotland. My brother and sister and their spouses will be joining, and our group will be cycling from Edinburgh to York, England, over the course of a week. You read that right. In total, the eight of us, ranging in age from 27 to 80, will be cycling around 200 miles. My parents have always made fitness an important part of their lives, and I continue to be impressed and inspired by their example and determination to stay active. It's not often we're all together, and I'm looking forward to a week full of exploration and time with loved ones.
Next we will head to (squealing in anticipation) Kathy Fish and Nancy Stohlman's French retreat, at an adorable French cottage called...The French Retreat! Located in Yviers, a tiny town in the south of France near Bordeaux, the retreat promises to be all things magical—a lime tree to write beneath, a swimming pool looking over the sunflower-studded French countryside, local wine, amazing food, and writerly friends, the very best thing about retreating!
And...here's where my original post to you, my friends, came to a SCREECHING HALT.
I planned on sharing way back in June, before the bike trip and the retreat. Before celebrating Mariano's birthday and our anniversary. The original message? It's all hazy now, but I think it had something to do with getting away from our ordinary routines and seeing the world through a different lens. It was about fueling creativity. And, of course, it was about letting travel "take you." And take us, it did! Just not exactly where we thought we were going.
In my mind, I had pictured this trip hitch-free so many times, particularly the retreat. I could see those gorgeous sunflowers in Yviers, feel the hugs of friends old and new. I imagined sitting under the lime tree with my friends Meredyth and Jesse, breathing in the lime-y air, writing and sharing something inspired and unexpected.
Friends, I'm sad to say that the night before we were due to head south from London to Paris and make our way toward Yviers I started feeling sick, and tested Covid positive. So. That was that, of course. I missed the retreat. The retreat! It was the reason we had planned to go to France in the first place, the foundation upon which we built an entire itinerary. I was, to put it mildly, incredibly disappointed. After licking our wounds for a few days recuperating at an Airbnb, we rallied, rode the train south to France, faces to the sun(flowers), and began the next leg of our journey.
Then, just when we thought that surely the rest of the trip would be smooth, of course it would be, we were hit with:
*Traveler's tummy for days that confined us to hotel rooms
*Violent food poisoning the night we were supposed to get on a boat with no bathroom
*All of the regular, frustrating, to-be-expected travel glitches, like botched Airbnb check-ins, faulty air conditioning, lack of washers and dryers in places that advertised them, being openly laughed at for our terrible French (yes, that happened) and dragging too many heavy bags from place to place.
Now, I know you may be thinking, Well, boo hoo, it couldn't have been that bad, being in Europe for two months, even with these mishaps. After all, Kelli was probably looking out a bathroom window at the Matterhorn while she was hurling, at least she had a view! Life happens, even when we're traveling, right? Right. But also. Sometimes you just want to hurl into your own toilet and curl up, Covid-fevered, on your very own bed.
I'm a believer in lessons, that challenges present themselves for us just when we need them, that no matter how uncomfortable a situation is, there's something to be mined from that experience, a gem that shines bright and that we carry forward. So, what was the lesson?
I kept asking myself that over the course of the trip, the question nagging each time we were presented with another snafu.
Was it about letting go of control, welcoming the unexpected? Was I meant to learn flexibility? Did I need to embrace finding the good in challenging situations? That had to be it, right? At first, I thought so. But the truth is, I'm actually okay at most of those things, especially finding the good (well, most of the time). So, no. Those things felt like they were skimming the surface. What I needed to do was go deep. And in order to peel back the layers, to get to the very center of things, I had to be rocked by something even bigger.
I needed to lose my cell phone.
Imagine a month with no phone. No little friend in your pocket, constantly poking you, needing attention, whining "Look at me!". No needy little friend who you really can't let go of because she's all lights and song and she wears that red lipstick you love and she's incredibly entertaining but you have a hunch she's actually a self-centered bitch. Even so you can't imagine life without her, it's like she's kidnapped you. It's like she owns you.
Then one day, she's just gone. And you look for her everywhere, for days. You knew she was cold, but this? At first you don't know what to do, you're lost. Who will sing Annie Lennox with you? Who will show you clips of fuzzy baby ducks wearing tulips for hats? Who will remind you the instant you have a new FB message? You've gotten used to her bitchy little pokes and you miss them!
But days go by, and you start to miss her less. Because it's just you and your husband, the only two at the party. Mariano, your best friend, who might not wear red lipstick, but chapstick is looking pretty good on him. It's down to earth, it's solid. And there are fragrant lavender fields in the French countryside and lovely flaky croissants and beurre, and bikes to ride on L' Alpe D' Huez, and uninterrupted conversations. And you begin to remember how it feels to be yourself, to own yourself, again.
What happened next? We came home, of course. I got another phone. But I decided to train her this time. I wanted to set boundaries. She would still entertain me. Yes, I missed that. Even I can admit she has a sweet side. She can sport Ruby Woo lips and show me baby ducks. But I will own her. I've trained her to sleep whenever I'm working, or having dinner with Mariano, or writing. She won't show me pop-ups from social media, because I haven't downloaded those apps. She won't tell me someone's calling unless it's an emergency ( I've programmed that for my kids, if anyone else has an emergency they will have to call their own mother).
And I'll see you on social media sometimes, because I love my dear friends.
Just remember, don't be a bitch.