For the 50+ Traveler

Venice in August is not the best time or place to get a great meal. The traditional month of family vacations, many a restaurant shuts down for a week -- or more. Despite my advanced planning, I still ended up at a tourist trap, where the dour staff refused me free tap water. Only pricey bottled water was at hand! Given the dire circumstances, I opted for a more economical choice: a bottle of cheap rosé. And thus my bed bug saga began.

Skipping merrily home to my clean but threadbare hotel, I encountered the property’s resident cat, Pierre, on the steps. I should pause and say I assumed it was the property’s cat, based on his cat-like claim of the courtyard space, but, as my husband points out, it really could have belonged to anyone -- or no one at all. But with the demon liquor in my veins, I considered it prudent to scoop Pierre up and bring him to my room in the brazen hope of enjoying a genuine cat nap. Intoxicated with the love of a temporary pet (and bargain-basement wine) I didn’t perform my customary bed bug sheet check.

A black cat nestled under the covers

As an experienced travel writer, I’ve known that bed bugs are on the rise globally. For instance, in New York City, hotels reported a shocking 44 percent increase in bed bug treatments from January 2015 to January 2016. There’s no city, style of accommodation, or price point that’s immune. As such, I’ve long considered it prudent to do a quick inspection of my sheets and mattress before settling in for the night. Bed bugs and their droppings (ew!) love to hang out in the stitching along mattress seams. But caught between the romance and the rosé, I let my guard down. I didn’t notice anything amiss the next morning as I grabbed a cornetto and cappuccino and thought only of the beautiful Italian sun warming my skin as I caught the train to Rome.

In Rome, I avoided the inevitable August restaurant search by taking part in a sublimely delicious cooking class. Stuffed with tomato, ricotta, more tomato, pasta, still more tomato, and veal, vegetables, and tiramisu, I was in a blissful stupor as I scratched a mosquito bite on my elbow. But when I arrived back at my hotel, two more had appeared. I started to fret. Was I developing a sudden allergic reaction to tomato?

As I tossed and turned in bed, a vision of Pierre (the cat) appeared in my mind. Was he really such a glossy, black-furred beauty? What was I thinking, grabbing a strange animal from the road and bringing him and his sundry vermin into my bed for cuddles? Surely I had caught fleas. But as my shins and ankles erupted in a firestorm of furiously itchy bites, the truth was depressingly conclusive: Fleas weren’t to blame. It was bed bugs!

A dated-looking bed

The abject misery that is bed bug bites cannot be overstated. Whoever wrote the medical literature that describes them as “moderately itchy” needs to be fired immediately. The combination of pulsating welts and the summer sun was a hellish tag team of sweat, tingling, itchiness, prickling, and angry red skin. But stubbornness meant proceeding with my itinerary as planned, including a bicycle ride in the midday sun. Let’s just say this was far from my best decision.

My time in Rome was a crash course in taking my theoretical knowledge of bed bugs to a more pragmatic level. Here’s what I wish I had known beforehand:

  1. No good can come from excessive internet research. Looking at magnified pictures of insects on Wikipedia will NOT help your cause.
  2. A first aid kit can save your sanity. My tiny kit contained a tablet for seasonal allergies. Not perfect, but combined with the numbing effect of a disinfecting alcohol wipe, I was able to sleep on that first, dreadful night.
  3. A guidebook is an indispensable tool. My compact Rick Steve's Pocket Guide to Rome helpfully included pharmacy information and a list of basic Italian phrases, which was reassuring.
  4. ...but as it turns out, in the case of bed bugs, you don’t need any language skills at the pharmacy. All you have to do is look despondent, lift up your shirt to showcase the row of furious welts on your stomach, and gnash your teeth in imitation of a hungry bed bug. I PROMISE they will instantly hand over a tube of ointment.
  5. And when said ointment really doesn’t do much (because no force on earth is stronger than a bed bug’s demon poison), repeat the performance with another pharmacist, and add in the motions of swallowing a pill. No translation needed!
  6. Time is your best friend. Life will be MUCH better in 48 to 72 hours.
  7. Enduring the misery of bed bugs will be a million times easier if your life is climate controlled. Take soothing cool showers. Don’t follow in my foolish footsteps and do the sweatiest activity you can think of.
  8. Yes, you should wash all your gear and clothing in hot water. Embrace this tedious chore as a great way to mentally reset mid-trip. Toss anything you aren’t using, reorganize your packing cubes, and sort through those receipts.
  9. Muster the strength needed to refrain from killing your spouse or travel companion as they bemusedly brag that they can’t understand why the bed bugs didn’t get them as well.
  10. And, finally, don’t assign premature blame. Especially where cheap wine, shopworn hotels, and innocent cats are concerned...

It’s often said that bed bug bites are first detected about a day after they occur. However, a more accurate timeline is 24 to 48 hours. Suddenly, the 16 to 24 hours or so between my sleep in Venice and my first scratch in Rome at supper time seemed extraordinarily short. My previous night’s stay, about 40 hours earlier in Ljubljana, Slovenia, seemed far more probable.

That probability became a near certainty when I learned that you will often see tiny brown streaks in your sheets after you have been bitten. What you’re seeing is your own dried blood, post-attack. And I distinctly remember seeing this in my sheets at our Ljubljana hotel as I folded laundry. I assumed that it was dirt or pollen from my walk. Nope! And to think I had been mentally slandering a Venetian hotel and questioning the wisdom of kidnapping animals for absolutely no reason! I was fooled by the Venetian hotel’s slightly shabby appearance and immediately assigned blame, even though I knew that bed bugs don’t discriminate among properties.

The facade of an orange and yellow italian building

Despite my bed bug misery (and let me tell you, I was miserable), I haven’t changed my travel practices. I don’t let bed bug reports deter me. I know that virtually every hotel in the world has had such reports and most are not accurate (and might even be a way for competing properties to smear each other). I care more about the property’s responsiveness and the gravity with which they approach their investigations. I still often do a quick flick of the bed sheets (complete with the requisite “Aha!” to intimidate, just in case) but I don’t tear the room apart.

My bed bug saga had a happy ending. Within days, my agonizing itchiness began to melt away. Before long, the swelling had settled and the bites were a distant memory -- save for the small, unattractive strips of stretched out, dead skin that lingered like tiny deflated balloons over my once-portly welts. As I used my dermatological distress as an excuse to buy a fancy body scrub, I couldn’t help but reflect on the roller coaster week that involved undetected bites, a falsely accused cat, potential tomato trauma, a diaphoretic bicycle ride, and miming at the pharmacy. I’d emerged victorious, with the kind of strut you can only acquire when you stare down an animal attack and live to tell the tale. All the same, from now on, I only want to be bitten by the travel bug!

Photo Credit: Marcus Loke / Unsplash