Before our family vacation, friends gently suggested that the trip we planned might be “overly ambitious.” Translation: “You’re crazy!  It sounds exhausting.”  Autism families might even think we had cooked up a recipe for disaster. Certainly, I had my own doubts. How were Matt and Samantha, my 28 year-old, different-as-night-and-day, twins going to share a room together for 17 days?

All our previous family vacations included a week of whirlwind sightseeing and then ended with crashing at a beach resort for the second week. We are all comfortable with that pattern, so why risk the anxiety and meltdowns that go with extra travel?  Answer: Irresistibly low first-class airfare—IF we were willing to extend our trip, leaving August 15th and returning September 2nd.

Our first stop was Barcelona, where we spent four days touring with Oliver, our warm and effervescent guide. Oliver guided us through the Basilica of the Sagrada, El Born and the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres, (among other sites), and we even saw Flamenco dancing. Our family also enjoyed the best gazpacho I ever tasted, served in a wine glass at Bar Canete. In fact, the entire meal was perhaps the best of the trip. Sorry, France.

Thanks to lots of pre-trip preparation, Samantha was an angel going through security at the airport.  She slept through most of our overseas flight and arrived bubbly and energetic in Spain. All went smoothly (more or less) until our train trip from Barcelona to San Sebastian. The stress and anxiety of finding the right train, hauling too many pieces of heavy luggage on and off the train, and listening to the hurried instructions of her brother, the designated family porter, finally unhinged her. Why did she have to “go sit down” and “get out of the way?” Samantha has always hates it when her twin brother tells her what to do.  She hates it even more that his advice/instructions/suggestions are ALWAYS right. After breathlessly disembarking, I tried to disengage from her repetitive screaming match with me and her brother, by walking ahead and ignoring her (ABA style), hoping no one would call the police. Fortunately, no one did…

Moving on to the highlights… we enjoyed breathtaking views in San Sebastian which included Eduardo Chillida’s  sculpture, “The Wind Comb,” a curved and rusty metal structure built into the side of a cliff overlooking the sea and coastline.

Speaking of breathtaking views, our next stop was Pyla de Mer, a tiny French resort on the Atlantic ocean in western France, where we stayed at the Philippe Starck designed Co(o)rniche.  We would have never discovered this hidden jewel but for the fact that Biarritz was totally booked due to the G7 conference and the arrival of our President.  Pyla de Mer is famous for having the biggest natural sand dune anywhere, and for its spectacular views. Somehow Howard and I ended up with the very best corner room in the hotel, with an enormous terrace and amazing views, which could also be enjoyed while taking a shower. Ask for room #7.

La Co(o)rniche restaurant was incredibly lively with excellent food and a hopping bar scene. Matt observed that “every waitress was hot”, dressed in skin tight white pants or a short skirt. He also didn’t mind seeing the topless women sunning themselves.

I am happy to report that the Elisofon family could arrive at the infinity pool and deck after 11 am and still find comfy deck chairs with plenty of umbrellas, where we enjoyed four full days of relaxation before driving to Bordeaux.

As Samantha likes to say, Bordeaux was a “mix and match” of beautiful old architecture with modern cable cars gliding through the main thoroughfare. Of course, all the wine was magnifique. We visited three vineyards and their chateaus:  Brane-Cantena Margaux, St. Julien and Pauillac.  The oldest bottle of wine we saw preserved was from 1855! We were also told that 1990—the year our twins were born—was an excellent vintage.

Did you know that hail is the biggest threat to a successful grape harvest? Or that there’s a very expensive contraption that one of the vineyards purchased to “bomb” the hail by using sound waves to break up the ice into rain? Neither did I!  Apparently, mating butterflies are also hazardous to the health of grapes.  To protect against butterfly orgies, the vineyards hang small plastic tubes next to each plant with a pheromone which causes “sexual confusion.” The male butterflies are first drawn to the vineyard, but quickly fly away when no females are present.  Welcome to the modern world of winemaking.

After tasting 6 different glasses of Bordeaux (before lunch!) and 3 more later, I had a whole new appreciation for wine (and was also ready for a nap when we returned to our hotel). No, I did NOT drink all 9 glasses. After a few sips from each glass, I reluctantly spat some out (which is expected) and left the rest.  A pity, but I didn’t want to be drunk before our dinner at Le Chapon Fin, a 3 star Michelin restaurant, where, naturally, I couldn’t resist sampling another glass of Bordeau.

Our next stop was Paris. Although we have visited Paris many times (and took our kids when they were 16), we thought it would be fun to go back. Believe it or not, none of us had ever visited the Eiffel Tower, so now we can say we went together as a family to join the hordes of tourists crowded onto elevators and enjoying amazing views of the city. We also enjoyed seeing the old Jewish quarter in Le Marais. In the spirit of déjà vu, we returned to the Grand Colbert restaurant, which was featured in the movie, Something’s Gotta Give with Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.  We had taken our kids to the Grand Colbert when they were 16 and thought they would enjoy returning at 28.

Sorry to say Le Grand Colbert was like a French version of Katz’s deli. Rude waiters and delicious food. Our snobby French waiter did NOT appreciate Samantha ordering her Coke Zero without ice or bringing extra bread for our son. Even though I ordered in French, and my kids always said s’il vous plait and merci, our waiter scowled and walked away without the customary “pas de quoi” or “de rien” (the French version of “you’re welcome”).  Clearly, we were NOT welcome.

Amsterdam was the opposite of Paris.  Everyone welcomed us with open arms. Especially wonderful was Tony, our guide and driver to Brugge, who arrived in the morning with lattes for me and Matthew with extra shots of espresso! During our 2 hour and 45 minute car ride to Brugge, Tony regaled us with stories about his best and worst celebrity clients. Quarterback Drew Brees became Tony’s friend and is on his speed dial; Justin Bieber was thrown out of his car for putting his feet up on either side of the driver’s head.

Brugge looked just like it did in the movie by the same name: old, quaint and beautiful, as if time had stood still.  We indulged in Belgian chocolates (Matt consumed a box of 8), Belgian fries and Belgian waffles and still managed to eat lunch and walk around.  On the way back from the restrooms, Howard encouraged Samantha to sing “O Mio Bambino,” to our driver who said he loved opera.  Tony was so impressed with Samantha’s voice that he invited her to sing in Amsterdam’s 2000 seat Concert Theater (empty), where his friend the security guard allowed us to enter through a back door.  A magical experience…which can only make this mom dream for a repeat performance in front of a full house.

Our last day in Amsterdam, we went to the Anne Frank House. Howard and I saw it last year, but returning with out adult kids was an even sadder, more moving experience.  We lived to see our children grow up. Otto Frank did not.  In the afternoon we went to the Reichstag museum, saw Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”, and visited Rembrandt’s house.  We also walked almost 8 miles that day.

As we enjoyed our last dinner in the hotel restaurant, almost too tired to speak, a middle aged couple stopped by our table. Addressing only Samantha, the woman asked: “Were you recently in a movie?”

“Yes, I co-starred in Keep the Change.” Samantha grinned ear to ear, suddenly revived.

“It won the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival and Samantha earned a Best Actress nomination,” Howard quickly added.

But the woman ignored Howard (and the rest of us).  Her eyes were glued to Samantha. “We LOVED Keep the Change! We saw it on Amazon Prime right before we flew here from Philadelphia. You were brilliant and did such an amazing job!” She gushed reverently. ”May I give you a hug?”

Almost nothing makes Samantha happier than compliments and hugs. She extracted herself from her (preferred) middle seat and gave her new, star struck fan a big hug.

Needless to say, that last dinner was a perfect end to our very ambitious trip. We were all laughing together.

“Samantha and three nobodies,” Matthew joked on the plane ride home.

I fell asleep smiling.

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