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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hidden gift of a travel disaster

A viral story about an insufferable dinner in Italy offers a lesson on silver linings

((Illustration by Margaret Flatley for The Washington Post))
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Several years ago, I began the unusual habit of high-fiving the man who would become my husband.

I don’t typically high-five anyone, especially not romantic partners; I’m woefully uncoordinated. But there we were, slapping hands like the tween protagonists of a ’90s commercial. It became our way of commemorating a special memory: the time our luggage was stolen in San Francisco.

We had planned a weekend getaway, which was going quite well for about 45 minutes. Then someone stole all of the bags out of our rental car, and we handled it like the fledgling adults we were: I cried, he panicked, and we immediately turned around and flew home. The gate agent commented on our ability to pack light. “It wasn’t by choice,” I replied.

“Maybe this will be funny one day,” my then-fiance said. “Maybe it’ll be a story we tell again and again.”

“I doubt that,” I told him, patting his cheek affectionately. But he was right. The story of our luggage kept coming up, the way stories about mishaps do. It was so relatable, our friends said, to leave for a place with good intentions and return home with regret. No one is a stranger to having a bad time. It became, if not something good, at least something that was ours.

“Remember,” my fiance will eventually say to me, eyes twinkling, his face insufferably handsome and smug, “the time our luggage was stolen in San Francisco?” I refuse to say who held their hand up first, but there we were, high-fiving over the memory of our missing bags for the first time.

I spent the night in an empty airport. It was a dream come true.

There’s something to be said for sustaining travel disasters with people we love. It ties you together, this thing you survived. You laugh about it in hindsight, because what else is there to do? You tried crying. It did nothing besides dehydrate you.

Relationships are forged in the dire moments, with the people who are by your side as you endure missed flights, food poisoning and hotel room carpeting that shows the telltale stains of raccoon afterbirth.

Fast-forward in time. My fiance is now my husband. We’ve written our shared history on countless trips, good and bad. I assume by now — after 20 years together and 13 years of marriage, much of it spent traveling — we would have figured out how to navigate the world without mishaps. I am woefully wrong.

We arrange to meet friends in Italy. We are all newly vaccinated. The border has just opened to Americans. An ocean and a pandemic have separated us for the last year and a half, and when I see them all again, we hug long enough to defy platonic expectations. We have countless wonderful meals that begin to blend together. We try to describe them to friends and family back home, but truthfully? No one wants to hear about an excellent meal you’ve eaten without them. Save it for your Instagram feed, where friends can politely “like” a photo and move on.

And then, we have one unforgettable meal. Indelible in my mind because it is so bizarre I worry that the fabric of the universe will start to unravel. It manages to offend all the senses. The meal is the culinary equivalent of a Hieronymus Bosch painting — so confusing and terrifying that I think we might be in purgatory.

We sit around the table over the course of this interminable yet somehow wildly insubstantial meal, trying to figure out which course holds the clue to release us from what I have concluded can only be an ill-conceived escape room. Later, I blog about the incident, which included instructions to lick citrus foam out of a plaster mold of the chef’s mouth. The Internet will be fascinated by our misfortune, craning its giant head to watch the train wreck of our evening.

A travel writer’s bad review of a Michelin-starred restaurant went viral. The chef responded with images of horses.

As we leave the meal, something strange overtakes us: We are howling with laughter at all of it. Perhaps it is the joy of knowing we now have this story between us, a tie to one another, to the Earth, to anyone who asks about that night. Perhaps we are just giddy from low blood sugar.

“This is a night I will never forget and never want to repeat,” my friend Ellie says as we walk through ancient streets, and I slip my arm through hers. “What a rare thing.”

These disasters are gifts born of privilege: to be fortunate enough to travel in the first place, to move between borders or across a country with ease. To surround yourself with loved ones from far-off places. The luxury of complaining about things that go wrong when you’re supposed to be having a great time. We savor moments that fit in the narrow overlap of the Venn diagram between “will make a great story” and “does not require additional therapy.”

Here is another trip gone wrong, here is the claim ticket for a piece of luggage you’ll never see again. These are your disasters, these are your stories. Piece them together, and look at the life you’ve had. At the people by your side when everything fell apart. Remember the time your luggage was stolen in San Francisco? Remember the way he told you it would all be okay?

Yes, yes, of course. Now hold up your hand. High-five.