What happens when you combine a hotel cat and cheap wine? Bed bugs, that's what. Here's what happened to me.
Venice in August is not the best time or place to get a great meal.
During this traditional month of Italian family vacations, many a restaurant shuts down for a week – or more. Despite my advanced planning, I still ended up at a tourist trap during our 2016 trip. The dour staff refused to serve free tap water. Only pricey bottled water was available, chafing against my frugal principles. 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 Ryan 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 a brazen hope of enjoying a genuine cat nap with him.
Intoxicated with the love of a temporary pet (and bargain-basement wine) I didn’t perform my customary bed bug sheet check...
As an experienced travel writer, I know that bed bugs are on the rise globally. No city, style of accommodation, or price point is immune. As such, I’ve long considered it prudent to quickly inspect my sheets and mattress before settling in for the night. Bed bugs and their droppings love to hang out in the stitching along mattress seams. But caught up in the heady excitement of kidnapping a cat and drinking rosé, I let my guard down. Perhaps I was somewhat distracted when Pierre demanded his freedom and I reluctantly aquiesed less anyone figured out what I was up to and my normal routine was thrown off. I didn’t notice anything amiss the following day, and I grabbed a cornetto and cappuccino and thought only of the beautiful Italian sun warming my skin as I caught the train to Rome.
With the memory of my mediocre Venetian meal still fresh in my mind, I avoided the inevitable August restaurant search in Rome by participating in a sublimely delicious cooking class. Stuffed with tomato, ricotta, more tomato, pasta, still more tomato, 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 tomatoes?
As I tossed and turned in bed, a vision of Pierre 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? Suddenly, in my recollections, Pierre was a grimy peasant, teeming with all manner of parasites. Perhaps I had caught fleas? But the truth was depressingly conclusive as my shins and ankles erupted in a firestorm of furiously itchy bites. Fleas weren’t to blame.
It was bed bugs!
The abject misery that is bed bug bites cannot be overstated. Whoever wrote the medical literature describing them as “moderately itchy” must 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 down the Appian Way. Let’s just say that this was far from my best decision. Feeling crummy + high energy activity + Rome in the August sun = blerg, blerg, blerg.
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.
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 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, 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. 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 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.
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 has had such statements, and most are inaccurate (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 often quickly flick the bed sheets (complete with the requisite “A-HA!” 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!
If you enjoyed this piece, you'll also like:
How To See The World, One Optometrist At A Time
33 Things To Do The Day Before You Travel
This Decades-Old Piece Of Travel Advice Saved My Taxi Ride
Posts by Location
Posts by Date