Woke up in a hotel halfway to our holiday destination. Said “good morning” to my family, who’d all woken up in the same room. Saw a new text message waiting on my phone:
“I’m so sorry, but I have to cancel your Airbnb stay that was supposed to begin today. The people who were in the house until this morning just tested positive for coronavirus.”— Albert, Airbnb host, the morning our reservation began
The house was an old stone cottage in the north of Catalunya, 15 minutes south of the French border, complete with an indoor pool and sauna, and a backyard padel court. The price was excellent, about what you’d pay for a pretty standard hotel in a major city. I had just confirmed the meet-up time with the host, Albert, last night.
This year, coronavirus has already cancelled a trip to Portugal for my 40th birthday, and two other attempted escapes from the city a couple of months ago. Now this. I’m bummed. Listening to my kids, as they heard this, you would have thought the universe crashed.
Kid 1: “Worst moment of my life.”
Kid 2: “Why does all this bad stuff always happen to me.”
Me to my wife: “I can’t fucking believe this. I just confirmed the meet time with him last night.“
Me to my kids: “Okay, this is a bummer. I understand that everyone is really disappointed. Me too. But it happened, and we can’t do anything about it. All we can do now is try to find a new plan.“
So we regrouped, and over hotel breakfast we panic-searched for an alternative.
And as we did, we discovered alternative interpretations of the same news that made us realize how lucky we actually were.
It could be worse: how to reframe an unpleasant discovery
The universe did not crash. We simply recieved new information: a message notifying us that our plans must change.
Expectations had primed us for a unique getaway into the mountains. But we still had the week off, and we were already out of our Barcelona city and into the Catalan countryside.
And with a little imagination, we started seeing a number of hypothetical scenarios that looked a lot worse than our current situation.
Scenario 1: no one reports the positive virus test, and we spend the next few days inhaling its leftovers
What if the previous guests hadn’t reported their positive tests to Albert? Or what if Albert figured he needed a few hundred more bucks so decided not to tell us what happened?
I’m no epidemiologist, so I don’t know how risky it is to enter a house occupied a day earlier by covid carriers. But I know I don’t much care for the idea, so I greatly appreciate the news making it our way.
Scenario 2: we drive and arrive at the house, only then to discover the surprise
At least we found out while we were still at the first hotel. Arriving at the destination Airbnb, hearing the news, and then hoping the wifi signal reached the road while we sat in the hot car scanning for alternative destinations would have made things even less pleasant.
Much better was searching for an alternative plan over breakfast on the terrace of our current hotel.
Scenario 3: we get the message while still in Barcelona, frustrated laziness prevails, and spend our holiday at home
We left Barcelona a day earlier to enjoy a day near Palamós, a beach town on Catalunya’s Costa Brava. Some friends had invited us to their new summer place, our kids play for hours together, and it was kinda-sorta on the way to the Airbnb. Here are a few smells of the Mediterranean from that stop:
Had we not had that opportunity, we would’ve woken up in our home in Barcelona rather than a hotel somewhere along the way. And had that been the case, we may have just decided to call it all off, searching instead for new things to do around the city for a few days.
Would we have stayed local? I don’t know. But knowing how hard it was to find an available place this summer, we may have given up before starting a new search.
Scenario 4: we can’t afford a family holiday in the first place
We save all year to be able to have options to travel in the summer. Our typical routine takes us to my parent’s house in Indiana for a few weeks (we get a lot of days off in Spain). That takes four transatlantic flight tickets, not easy to do on Spanish salaries. This year’s coronavirus left us without that option.
But our places of employment were able to leave us with jobs, a scenario that roughly 30 million Americans and 4 million Spanish (approx 14% in each country) don’t find themselves in this year. And my parents and my wife’s parents taught us both the importance of saving and how to do it from a young age. Life skills that not everyone gets exposed to. Without that, there wouldn’t have been an Airbnb booking in the first place.
When the undesired leads to the unexpected
So what happened? My wife’s quick sleuth skills turned up two available nights at Can Mora de Dalt, a 15th century farmhouse on a hillside looking over the Mediterranean Sea. Since it was a same day reservation, she somehow managed a 10% discount, leaving it about the same price as the Airbnb, but with breakfast included.
No passing cars, no partying neighbors, no pandemic reminders. Just fresh air, family time, and fantastic views of the sea from the pool. Here’s a few views from Can Mora:
As it turned out, it rained for three straight days in the area we’d planned to spend the week, another undesired scenario that could have been added above. I’m not a believer in fate of that sort, but nor do I mind when that kind of fate intervenes.
I confess: I complain more than I should about life’s little inconveniences. And I often imagine better versions of my life, even when things are going well. At times this can be good to do. It motivates me to learn new skills, fix things around the house, and train harder for long races.
As this holiday taught us—and the stoics taught us over 2000 years ago—it can also be useful to imagine less desirable life scenarios. Things can always be worse.
Our unexpected cancelation wasn’t the first time we’d thought about Scenario 4. It was, however, an important reminder of it. A reminder to direct attention away from what we want and to focus instead on what we already have.