After months of relentless snow in Germany, we were headed to Spain for spring break. We’d splurged on a rental house along Costa Brava, with breathtaking views up the wazoo. What could possibly go wrong?
We showed up at the Stuttgart Airport right on time. When called to board, we cattle-prodded our three kids through the tight line up. Excited to escape the frigid confines of Patch Barracks, I envisioned pitchers of sangria, casual tapas dinners, and lounging seaside without a care in the world.
Then, I saw something moving on Anna’s forehead. A tiny bug crawled along her hairline. Horrified, I instinctively grabbed her, pinching the bug between my thumb and finger. The girls had been complaining of itchy scalps, but I’d thought it was dry skin.
“Boarding passes, please,” the Lufthansa rep demanded. Francis produced our tickets and herded us through the gate, wondering why I looked like I’d seen a ghost.
With the unidentified beast clamped between my thumb and forefinger, I threw myself into our row of airplane seats, peered down at my pinched fingers, and slowly released my grasp.
The speck was motionless. Was it a harmless flake of skin? A fragment of leaf? A sesame seed from our morning bagels? Had I panicked for no reason? Silly me!
Just then, I squealed as spied six wriggling legs.
Francis was irritable — his usual mood during family travel — so he was annoyed by me waving frantically across the isle. He leaned over and barked, “What is it, for criminy’s sake?”
“Lice!” I whisper-screamed, pointing at Anna’s head. No one in our family had ever had lice, so the idea of our 5th-grade daughter being infested with parasites was terrifying. I spent the rest of our flight picking at Anna like a crazed chimpanzee. Of course, Lilly had lice too.
Debarking the plane, I peered into Francis’ eyes and enunciated desperately, “FIND A PHARMACY. NOW.”
Francis sputtered through the streets of Girona in our rental car, searching for a green neon cross, the universal sign of european pharmacies. “There’s one,” I exclaimed, pointing ahead, but there was no where to park on the busy street.
“Jump out! I’ll circle back and pick you up!” Francis yelled, and I leapt toward the green cross. I flung the door open and lunged breathlessly into the tiny establishment. Three startled Spaniards stared back at me.
In Europe, patrons ask the pharmacist for most products, which are located behind the counter. (A year later, this custom proved particularly embarrassing when I was constipated during a trip to Venice.) “My daughters have lice!” I blurted to the pharmacist. His puzzled look reminded me that I was in Spain.
Like a bad mime, I pantomimed, supplementing with the few Spanish words I remembered from 6th grade. “My niños!” I pleaded. I scratched my head violently, pinched an invisible bug, and grimaced. “Un poquito,” I growled, then hopped around, gnashing my teeth and clawing at the air like a giant, marauding louse.
Swallowing a giggle, the pharmacist said, “Si señora, un momento por favor.”
An hour later, Anna and Lilly were in the rental house bathtub, their heads in frothy turbans of shampoo and shower caps from the lice kits the Pharmacist had sold me.
Despite our initial panic, we didn’t let those lousy lice ruin our spring break.
To my relief, I learned that an estimated 6 to 12 million infestations occur each year in the US among children 3 to 11 years of age. Head lice are most commonly spread through direct hair-to-hair contact. Infestation has nothing to do with cleanliness or environment. Although it may take several treatments and multiple sessions of combing and nit-picking, lice can be eradicated in a couple of weeks. And, it is quite common for children to get head lice during school breaks, because that is when children have the most direct contact during selfies or sleep overs.
That week in Spain, we added nit-picking to our daily repertoire of sangria, tapas and breathtaking views up the wazoo. Spring break wasn’t as care-free as I’d envisioned, but sometimes, you have to take the good with the bugs.
For more information on head lice, see https://www.cdc.gov/parasites/lice/head/index.html.