What I learned from my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad vacation

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It took a less than perfect vacation to remind me of the value of stories….

As vacations go, it was more like a prison sentence. Time: seven days.

My husband Eric and I had long planned an October trip to Washington, DC. He’d never been, and, for me, it had been 27 years. Our planned highlight? Seeing the Smithsonian.

A week before we departed, the US government (including the Smithsonian) shut down.

Unable to cancel our trip and determined to remain upbeat we decided there was still plenty to see in the US capitol. And we were looking forward to an Eastern autumn, with clear skies, crisp temperatures and lots of colour.

When we arrived, Oct. 6, it was 85 degrees (29 celsius). No problem. We’d brought shorts and sandals, just in case. We made our muggy way to our rented apartment in the Capitol Hill area.

When travelling Eric and I usually try to rent from Vacation Rentals By Owner.  We’re not hotel people and we like to cook. We’ve used VRBO for years, in many cities, and never before had a bad experience. But within five minutes of arriving we noticed that our basement suite Victorian lacked both and oven and a stove. All it had was a hotplate.

Nor was there an electric kettle. Or a tea pot (we don’t drink coffee.) Or a table to eat upon. Within the hour, we discovered there was no hot water (except, thank goodness, in the shower.) Nor could we flush the toilet except by taking off the lid and pulling on the chain. Oh, and the towels were threadbare. We collapsed into bed that night, tired and cranky.

The next day it was raining with an intensity I’ve seen only in Vancouver, rain capital of the world.

At that point we decided we could turn our holiday into a tolerable one by determining the theme to be “what else could go wrong?” So, here’s what we did.

We had a good time at the excellent tribute to the media, Newseum, and managed to walk along the National Mall and the Vietnam Memorial  (despite reports of it being closed). We sat in on both the House and Senate  (good news: no lineups!) and saw the impressive Folger Shakespeare Library including 10 minutes of a rehearsal of Romeo & Juliet — fun!

We also enjoyed a journey through American social history at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) museum and toured the enormous National Cathedral, although in all honesty, we would rather have seen at least a modicum of light through the spectacular stained glass.

We even rented a car and spent a day in Annapolis, where we toured the city in the relentless rain (that’s me in the photo, above), visited Maryland State House and saw the impressive Banneker-Douglass Museum.

The seven days were a challenge but, as holidays always do, they passed faster than we expected. And, as I write this remembrance on the plane ride home, I’m reminded of the one incident that made me think of writing.

We had taken a mercifully brief Big Bus tour. As if aware of our holiday theme, the guide didn’t impress. Her commentary on the buildings and the streets gave many facts and a plethora of opinion but we found her style — brittle and sarcastic — profoundly irritating. Halfway through, though, we were required to change buses and, our in-person guide was replaced by a recorded soundtrack. You’d have thought that would have been a relief. But Eric and I looked at each other. The recorded guide wasn’t sarcastic but he was no improvement.

I didn’t think on it further until two days later when we were visiting the spectacular Dumbarton Oaks — a historic home and garden — in the ever-present rain. We hadn’t joined a tour but our path briefly crossed with that of a guide and we could hear her telling the story of how Mildred Barnes Bliss had persuaded her husband, Robert, of the importance of a spectacular garden.

That was it, I realized in a sudden flash of insight. Unlike our bus guides, the garden guide had worked her facts around a story.

No one wants to hear fact, piled upon fact. It’s boring. It has no beginning, middle and ending. It has no natural tension. No conflict. No resolution.

I’ve preached the power of stories in many columns over the years but I suddenly had that power illustrated in a way that gave me a new appreciation for its truth.

And, do you know what? It gave me this column.

Turns out I got more out of my holiday than just museum time.

Have you ever had a holiday that didn’t meet your expectations? What did it teach you? We can all learn from each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me by commenting below. (If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.)

Photo courtesy Eric Watts