When travelling with a sick child, the journey between the glamorous cities of Paris and Venice becomes anything but stylish. By Alison Arnold.

From Paris to Venice with illness and kindness

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection,  on Venice’s Grand Canal.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, on Venice’s Grand Canal.

In Paris, our daughter vomits across three walls of the lovely apartment where we are staying, then the next day sleeps until noon. A French-Australian friend on holiday in Spain recommends an English-speaking doctor in the 5th arrondissement. She tells us that David Sedaris wrote about him.

I can’t help but wonder: is this because of his white brushed-back hair? Or because he is the only doctor left in Paris in summer? Or because he answers his own phone and gives appointments that same day? Going to see him gives me the same slightly giddy feeling I had when we were on the Metro and the train doors opened before the train pulled into the platform. But all that happens is that he prescribes antibiotics for our daughter for a virus and tells us there shouldn’t be a problem with flying to Venice in two days’ time.

The sick girl sleeps and listens to audio books. The apartment is on the fourth floor of a building on Rue Lhomond, right on the edge of the old market street Rue  Mouffetard. The stairs slope and the apartment is full of light and elegant chairs. Its owner, a friend of a friend, is a chef, but there are very few utensils in the tiny kitchen. We flip omelettes with a cake server.

My partner and I kiss each other goodbye and tag team walking around the 5th arrondissement; the Jardin des Plantes, the botanic gardens, with its plane trees, dappled shade and sunflowers; the Seine; the markets. He returns with a vintage denim shirt once worn by a factory worker. I return with a beautifully constructed tea dress, which fits perfectly and which I promptly, accidentally, shrink in the wash. At Shakespeare and Company, the English-language bookstore on Rue de la Bûcherie, which is full of nooks and famous for this, I buy A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. The British bombing raids into Germany during World War II are a strange backdrop to Paris in summer. Or perhaps they’re not. Everything feels very close here. I make the sick girl some chicken broth and we take her out for an ice-cream at the end of the day. She chooses berry. They turn it into the shape of a flower in the cone. The day shops have closed on Rue Mouffetard – fish, meat, fruit, cheese, pastries – but the night shops are open and the street smells of crepes and cheese and Nutella.

The morning of the flight, she is tired and pale. She tells us she can’t go to Venice: the only thing she wants to do is go home. If she sees a plane with a kangaroo on its tail at the airport, she is getting on it and going home to Nan, the cat and the dog.

We mistime. We miss check-in by eight minutes.

At the service counter, begging doesn’t help. The sick girl and I can go with the cabin baggage if we go right now. Her dad can follow eight hours later with the big suitcase for another €80. Best bad plan there is. The sick girl and I head off, her in tears at leaving Dad behind.

On the passage to the plane she tells me that her ears are hurting again. I lose my nerve and imagine her eardrums bursting midflight. Long conversation with the aircrew. “She will be in unimaginable pain in the air if her ears are hurting now.” We decide not to fly and I apologise to the pilot, who I can see in the cockpit. He gestures back. C’est la vie.

We surprise her dad.

I take her to the doctor in Terminal F of Charles de Gaulle, which is miles of airport away, and clearly not usually for the public. He does an air pressure test on her ears, tells her that she must swim to her hotel in Venice and asks if she wants to be a pilot. She is already looking a little better. He rigs the time of our appointment to maximise the chance they’ll honour our tickets, and pronounces her fit to fly.

The previously unhelpful EasyJet lady pulls strings so we don’t have to pay extra for the next flight. And then we wait.

Circling Venice – a storm over the airport – the moon keeps coming, round and round, in the window. It starts in a light sky and ends in a dark one. The land turns to lights and then to nothing. The sick girl sleeps.

We circle for more than an hour.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the captain says, his sixth or 10th announcement, “the shower is moving but very slowly. We will hold one more time and then if we can’t land we’ll divert to Bologna. The weather is lovely in Bologna.”

When he finally announces that we are landing, the whole plane applauds. The sick girl doesn’t wake up. We land. More applause. The sick girl vomits on the way out.

A woman travelling with her even younger daughter helps us at the baggage carousel to call our accommodation to tell them we are late. We still have to get a vaporetto there. I’ve noticed this woman all afternoon at the airport. She is wearing a sundress and two straw hats, cowboy style, unselfconsciously. Hers and her daughter’s. When I thank her she says not to worry – we are all in the same boat. She is right and wrong. We’re in the boat of awful travel days but not in a gondola on a canal. I hate myself for putting the sick girl through this. I have made every wrong decision.

It is raining when we get on the wrong boat at the vaporetto station. The guy in charge of helping the passengers with their questions doesn’t help any of the passengers with their questions. Venice slips by, dark and shadowy and beautiful as we go the wrong way, towards Ferrovia, then the Rialto. Time stretches and I try to make sense of the map and speak my few words of Italian. Everything sounds like water, and feels like people who know where they’re going, except for us. I think of the doctor in Charles de Gaulle telling us we’d be swimming to our hotel.

We go back to the start and get on the right boat, the last one of the night. It is still raining and the sick girl sleeps standing up and then on the suitcases. When we get to our accommodation – they are understandably unimpressed – it is nearly one in the morning. We left our apartment in Paris 16 hours earlier. The sick girl falls asleep instantly.

When she wakes the next day to bright sunshine and the promise of gelato, she looks like herself again and tells us she feels better. Later, at the Peggy Guggenheim museum on the Grand Canal, a short walk from where we’re staying, we bask in the sun and look at the grave markers of Guggenheim’s dogs in the gorgeous, sculpture-filled garden. “Here lie my beloved babies,” the sign says, listing the names of 14 dogs. After the no-longer-sick girl tells me her favourite dog name – White Angel – I tell her she’d managed to sleep standing up on the vaporetto. She screws up her nose and says her eyes were closed but she was awake all the time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2016 as "Wrong turns".

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Alison Arnold is a writer and book editor.

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