Forest Fires, Missing the Boat, and Sleeping in Our Clothes: 11 Life Skills Learned Through Our Mediterranean Vacation Disaster

I’m writing these words from a tiny, hot, and unglamorous airport hotel room at the Charles De Gaulle airport outside Paris with no luggage, no change of clothes, and no air conditioning.

I should be home in Ohio right now. But instead, I’m hunkered down with my family at the end of a 10-day vacation having missed our connecting flight home from Barcelona. All that running through the airport got us nothing but sweaty clothes, which was too bad, because they’re the only clothes we’ll have for the next 36 hours.

It took an hour of standing in lines and using some French I learned 30 years ago, but we have tickets home tomorrow. What I really want to find now is a toothbrush.

The irony is, however, that this isn’t the first time in the last week that we spent an unplanned night in a strange hotel room with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Four nights ago we were in the middle of an admittedly lavish Mediterranean cruise. We decided to spend our shore leave in Marseilles by driving an hour and a half north to the lavender fields in Provence. Pretty swanky as far as vacations go.

Swanky, that is, until the forest caught fire.

Southern France hasn’t seen rain in two months, and the notoriously stiff winds, called “Le Mistral” by the locals, combined with that to make for the perfect storm of conditions for an out-of-control forest fire.

Multiple fires cropped up between the lavender fields and the port where our boat was docked. We tried one route back, and then another, and then another. Each time just to meet miles of traffic at a dead stop.

The truth was, by the time we noticed the smoke, all the highways between us and the port had been closed. The good news was that kept us from driving right into the path of the fire. But it was also keeping us from the boat, and along with it, all of our possessions, our room for the night, and our transportation to the next port of call.

We made one frantic call to the ship after another, struggling through language barriers and congested phone lines, trying to explain our situation. Not that it mattered. All we learned was that the boat would, in fact, leave without us, fire or no fire. And, in fact, it did leave without us. We had four more days of vacation paid for on that boat that were going to happen without us if we didn’t find a way to get to Nice, France by 7 am the next morning.

Okay, these are all definitely first-world problems. And that was the first of many lessons these minor disasters helped us teach our kids, and relearn ourselves, on this trip:

  1. We are supremely privileged to consider events like these as disasters. In fact,
  2. in the grand scheme of things, these were really nothing more than inconveniences in an otherwise sublime sea of luxurious experiences. Further,
  3. thinking of them as mere inconveniences makes them much easier to manage through. It keeps us from getting overwhelmed and stressed at the thought of facing real disasters.

We also learned to (4.) appreciate the help and kindness of strangers, like our tour guides Laurent Cygler and his brother Jacques who went out of their way to deliver us safely to Nice after the fires, and Blandine, a local photographer who helped us find and negotiate a last-minute hotel room.

So, we survived all right. But not knowing where or when you’ll have a bed to sleep in for the night in a foreign country can be a little stressful for parents and kids. (And having to do so twice in one week is downright nerve-wracking). So, there was more to learn. Part of our goal as parents was to show our kids how to be both resourceful when life throws you curves as well as how to emotionally handle the stress and uncertainty.

And we thought we were doing a pretty good job. We just didn’t know how many times we’d get a chance to demonstrate those skills in a 10-day period of time. In addition to the fires, missing the boat, missing our flight home, and two nights of sleeping in our clothes, we lost two mobile phones, and along with them every picture we’d taken on the family vacation we’d been planning for six months. That took more calls, emails, Uber rides, and waiting in line at lost-and-found offices (which thankfully resulted in one of the two missing phones being returned).

Again, not the most fortunate series of events. But, it allowed us to learn a few more lessons about:

5. how to be more careful with our things (use pockets that zip or button),
6. the importance of backing up the pictures on your cell phone every day (that’s what iCloud is for),
7. how to appreciate who and what we have (people are more important than things), and
8. how to navigate unplanned situations (by not being afraid to talk to strangers to ask for help). And, of course,
9. knowing a little of the local language always helps.

Finally, we also got to learn — and demonstrate to our kids — how to (10.) look at the bright side. After all, we did get to spend a week on the Mediterranean Ocean. We still got to see the lavender fields in Provence, climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa, marvel at the Sistine Chapel, bike through the streets of Barcelona and Nice, see the Roman Coliseum and the volcano on Mt. Vesuvius, and walk the ruins of Pompeii.

So, while there are definitely parts of this vacation we’re glad are in our past, most of it and the friends we made along the way will be sorely missed. Which brings us to the last lesson we learned, best articulated by the one and only Dr. Seuss:

11. “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

— Smiles from Paris

Okay, it’s your turn. I’d love to keep this list going with your tales of travel troubles and the lessons you learned from them. Please leave them in the comment section below.

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Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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Comments

  1. Yes, first world problems indeed, but I’m sure stressful nevertheless. I’m glad you were able to turn these rough patches into learning lessons for the boys. Its important for our youth to see that not everyday is going to be smooth sailing. Its more important for them to see how you, the adults, handle adversity.

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