It was such lovely long drive up the Niagara river—we took the slow scenic route after crossing the Canadian border—so that by the time we arrived in the picturesque village of Niagara-on-the-Lake we were eager to find the darling little cottage we’d be staying in for the week. We turned on Victoria Street, pulled into the driveway—and stared. This couldn’t possibly be it. The garage was falling down, the lawn was a riot of spring grasses and flowering weeds that hadn’t been mowed, ever. A few window mullions had fallen and the concrete walkways were cracked and broken. Raccoons must have overturned the garbage cans in the night: trash blanketed the side of the driveway.

We stared for a moment, unable to open the car doors. “Maybe…” said Pam, “Maybe our cottage is behind this place, on the back of the property.”

I got out and walked to the door. Unfortunately, the promised lock box was hanging on the knob. There was no mistake. This was the place. I entered the code, found the key and opened the door.

You know what it’s like to see in real life the pictures of a home you rent on Airbnb? I felt a dizzying recognition. The living room looked just like the picture, except for the flat screen TV the size of a Mack truck, and….the shabbiness. The tables that looked mahagony in the pictures were really plastic. Two silverized photos of the Eiffel Tower hung behind the sofa. Still feeling that I had entered someone else’s home, I took a few more cautious steps.

It was all here, everything we saw online. The kitchen was bright, with yellow formica countertops and homemade cabinets slightly out of plumb. The bathroom was clean (thank God). The bedrooms were just as charming as in the pictures, but the beds were only double and neither Pam nor I any longer believe in the possibility of two humans having a restful night of sleep in a double bed. Thus, we suffered the hilarious irony that on a trip to celebrate our fortieth wedding anniversary we would be sleeping in separate rooms.

We stayed. But only after swearing the place was uninhabitable, only after threatening to flee six blocks to the Prince of Wales Hotel. After declaring the place a “fish camp,” Pam made her peace. It was clean. Sort of.

The next five days were a study in expectation and reality—in what it takes to make you happy. It wasn’t what we wanted, not what we expected or thought was coming to us. Now what? After a day or so cursing the owner for being such a cunning photographer, we figured it wasn’t worth ruining our big vacation. We cringed a bit at our own sense of privilege and how important it was that we were “above” this kind of thing. Billion of people live on a dollar a day. You think they have granite countertops? Kitsch wouldn’t kill us.

Every day our happiness hangs on expectation. If we expect—or demand—perfect health, adoring children, sunny days, bulging wallets, we will always come up short. Joy comes when we lower our expectation, only so that it lines up with reality. You want to live so that people who know you best say, “It takes so little to make her happy.”

Friday came. We packed our suitcases, cleaned the place like the cleaning people weren’t coming. I put the key back in the lockbox, dropped my suitcase in the trunk and hopped in the car. We looked at each other and spontaneously erupted in laughter, remembering the moment we first pulled in the driveway. This was one magnificent disaster.




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