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facts & arguments

They say you develop an itch for travel. They don't say what kind of itch.

In September, my husband and I boarded a flight to Paris. The eight days in this remarkable city had been in the planning stage for months. We're not world travellers, so this was a big deal for us.

We had a lot to celebrate – we'd raised two amazing children to adulthood, my artificial knee had restored my mobility and, most important, it was a significant wedding anniversary. There was no more romantic place than the City of Light to mark our 35 years together.

I started my vacation several days before our departure. I packed, weeded the gardens, did a few loads of laundry and acquainted our capable pet-sitter with our furry companions. I rehearsed those three all-important French words: blanc, rouge and rosé. I imagined cuddling with my husband in sunshine by the Eiffel Tower, sharing a baguette, cheese and une bouteille de vin.

The day before we flew to France, I noticed two tiny, closely spaced mosquito bites on my right wrist. On the flight, the number of bites increased to a half-dozen. Mosquitoes on the jet?

By the time we got to our hotel in Paris, the bites had progressed to my left arm. Within days, oozing red blisters had expanded at the original sites and spread to my neck and face, coming alarmingly close to my eyes. My waist and legs came next. The itch was maddening. My sweetie took pictures of my volcanic skin.

What was causing this? Bed bugs? But my husband was unbitten. A bad reaction to fleas, even though our pets live indoors? A remnant of the Black Death that had devastated Europe in the 14th century? An allergic reaction?

It was time to seek medical help. The carefully chosen words I'd practised in my head evaporated when I entered the pharmacy. Breaking down in tears, I pointed at the seeping blisters. " Bizarre," the staff exclaimed as they backed away in horror. " Très bizarre," said the good Paris doctor, who couldn't diagnose the problem. He prescribed something for the itch and urged me to see my family doctor when I returned to Canada in five days.

Five more days without a diagnosis. Could we make it? We put our travel agent on standby to make arrangements for a possible medical emergency.

The mornings became a familiar routine. After a sleepless night of tossing, turning and trying not to scratch, I'd stumble into the bathroom. My husband would hear the shriek, followed by a string of profanities and the location of the freshest outbreak. Undaunted, I'd bundle up in a long-sleeved shirt, hoodie, pants, shoes and socks, a thick scarf wrapped around my face and neck, and out we'd go for the day. Next to stylish French women, I looked like someone ready to knock over a boulangerie.

On the morning we toured the catacombs, I joked to my husband that he should just leave me in this subterranean city of skeletal remains.

In the evening, my plight would be put into sharp perspective. The two English-language television channels gave extensive coverage to the devastating famine in Somalia. A skin condition on a trip to Paris suddenly seemed embarrassingly insignificant and petty.

And my husband and I still had a wonderful time. Even though I scratched my way through most of the attractions, I was seduced by the city's beauty and history. The Louvre, the Impressionists, the architecture, Montmartre, the romantic dinner cruise down the Seine on our anniversary, the busy cafés, the buskers, the people-watching, the tour of Victor Hugo's apartment, the public gardens with their fountains and statues, the side streets and geraniums spilling from balcony planters – they were all we'd hoped for.

I thought the jig was up when security personnel at Charles de Gaulle Airport ordered me to remove my neck-hugging scarf, revealing the welts. They let me pass, and I left France with a Mona Lisa smile, a suitcase full of warm memories and an entertaining story about our travel experience.

Half an hour after we arrived in our hometown, I checked into urgent care at the hospital. My left arm was so swollen that I could barely bend it. My clothing was crusty from the oozing.

You've probably guessed the diagnosis: a galloping infection from coming in contact with toxicodendron radicans – poison ivy. Although it's still a mystery where I came into contact with the noxious, native North American plant, the chief suspect is the woodland garden in front of our house. With the doctor's prescriptions, the itch was gone within two weeks.

Did poison ivy ruin our vacation? Absolutely not. The rash became a metaphor for the occasional and inevitable bumps in all relationships. We worked through the challenge with as much good humour and dignity as we could muster.

Not once did my beloved husband make me feel that I was somehow responsible. And we discovered that our vows to support each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, mean as much to us now as they did when first spoken in a little country church years ago.

We're already making plans for our 36th anniversary celebration. In the meantime, I'll follow that sage advice: leaves of three, let it be.

Joan Wiley lives in St. Catharines, Ont.