Wednesday, July 28, 2010

First Day in France...

June 29, 2010
Guethary, France

It’s been a very long day after a very long two weeks in Ukraine and Hungary. Now, my wife, daughter and I are blessed with a short vacation in Pays Basque, the Basque region of France. We are staying in a pleasant flat, owned by some generous new French friends, in a small village perched on a cliff above the Atlantic. I just returned from a walk to an overlook enjoying the view of the Bay of Biscay and the marvelously perfect temperature. All is well; however, all was not well a few hours ago.

Let’s go back a bit…We left Budapest’s Hotel Hungaria at 5:00 am this morning and traveled by bus to the international airport. After a harried check-in, we bid good-bye to the amazing team with whom we have spent the last two weeks, and boarded an Airbus A321 for Paris and DeGaulle Airport. The flight was uneventful, as all flights should be, and we landed on time. To get to our destination, we were required to transfer to another Air France flight from Paris to Biarritz. The only problem is that we arrived at DeGaulle and our flight left from Orly. The two sweaty, crowded airports happen to be on opposite sides of this huge city and the freeways of Paris are not friendly.

After we discovered the departure point for our bus to Orly, we enjoyed a few minutes of calm before the Les Car Airport Shuttle arrived at terminal two. As the primarily French crowd leaned into us while we stood in line, we hopped on the bus only to discover that the driver would not accept my versatile Diners Club Mastercard that I have used all over this wide world! He would only accept Euros, of which I had none, was anxious to get going, and our bags had already been loaded. Jeannie and I jumped off the bus, hoping to get back on if I could find an ATM or currency exchange before the driver got antsy. She would pull our bags off the bus while I rushed back into the terminal. The only problem is that our bags were now buried far back in the cave-like luggage compartment underneath the bus, she couldn’t reach them, and the driver was getting ready to leave! She yelled for Hannah to crawl into the compartment and retrieve the bags. Hannah hesitated, filled with visions of being trapped in the bus dungeon as the bus pulled away from the curb and traveling across Paris pretending to be a Gucci bag! The mostly French crowd watched with a bit of disdain as we frantically and not too quietly tried to solve our dilemma before missing the bus! If we didn’t board this bus, it was quite likely that we would miss our connection to our destination airport.

Fortunately, there was a blessed ATM just inside the door and I obtained the much-needed currency! I paid the grumpy driver and the three of us quickly climbed back on the bus and thankfully plopped down in the last three seats of a very crowded bus!

Jeannie’s ride to Orly was quiet, though she did have a on-going fight with the very territorial woman next to her. Hannah’s bus ride started off with the loud rantings of a large, friendly French lady in a floppy white hat who thought she was speaking English. My bus ride took an immediate unpleasant turn when I realized that the exhausted, sleeping Frenchman beside me was simply going to use me for a nice furry pillow! For the first half of the ninety-minute lurching ride through the molasses-like Paris traffic, I compassionately let him keep his arm on my left leg and his head, containing a wide-open, drooling mouth, on my shoulder. After forty-five minutes of Jesus-like compassion, I reverted to my selfish self. I carefully, but gently began to apply firm and increasing pressure from my left sharp elbow into the top of his sleeping head while pretending it was an accident. My plan was to be very sorry for my intrusion as soon as he awoke. It worked and he was the one to apologize! Success!

Upon our arrival at Biarritz Airport, the looming question was how to get from there to our little flat in Geuthary. Walk, rent a car, ride the bus, or take a taxi? It was too far to walk. I really didn’t want to rent a car. The nice information lady told me that if we took a bus, we would have to walk from the “national road” to our little village. None of those options seemed good. So, we decided on the taxi. I still had a few Euros left over from the expensive and lurching ride between airports, so I made the wise decision to gather more of the precious currency. Just so you know, Biarritz airport has no currency exchange. I have no idea why not. Our next discovery was that the single ATM in the airport was out of service. Oh well, I thought, I can exchange dollars for Euros in our little village. After all, it is a tourist area!

Nope. Not happening.

We seem to have poor luck when first entering a new country for a little family vacation. In 2005, we arrived late in the evening in Jurmala, Latvia, to discover the flat in which we would stay was a little rough, to say the least, and there was no water available. It was hot, I had a wife and three kids with me, and we were thirsty and hungry. Hannah had already eaten the roll she had been carrying around in her pocket for three days. (I’ve always had a problem remembering to feed my children. Once, when Scotty was still in the high chair years, I forgot to feed him all day and couldn’t figure out why he was crying. I didn’t realize he was saying, “Eat!” Yes, I am guilty.)

In 2007, after a very long trip from Kampala, Uganda to Lisbon, Portugal, via London, with 25 people, one bathroom, and no showers for two days, we arrived at our flat in a dark neighborhood, after a crazy ride with an insane taxi driver. After finally getting into our flat, we anticipated a cool shower, which would wash off the grit of Africa. Again, discovered we had no water available, either for drinking, or for showering! The water was turned off! After walking the dark, cobblestone streets looking for a bottle of water, which we finally found, we all went to bed oily.

So, that brings us to today. After arriving at our little flat in a charming costal French village, we were tired, hungry, thirty and Euro-less. No problem! We figured we could use my Master Card, or my trusty American Express card that I use for travel to the far-flung reaches of the globe! After all, as I mentioned earlier, this is a tourist destination!

In our weary state, after sweating and walking and looking here and there, we couldn’t really find any restaurants even a source of a cool bottle of water. The lady in the nearby hotel told me the nearest food store is a long taxi ride away, the only place to change money is five to ten kilometers away, and there is no internet access here because this is such a small village. Are you kidding me? This is 2010, right?

So, after a quick look at the beach, with Hannah longingly remembering the pocket-sized roll in Latvia, I knew we had to find food and find it fast, or we were back to Latvian and Portuguese mutiny! We chose the Snack Express overlooking the ocean. They wouldn’t take a credit card. Hunger and thirst levels quickly spiked.

We walked back up the hill, wondering why we ever came to France in the first place. Our team was almost back on familiar ground in the good old USA and we were hungry, thirsty, and sweaty in France, a very long way from home! We decided to walk back up the hill to the main street along the coast because there would surely be food and water there! Nope. Hunger and thirst levels spiked again. Oregon was looking really fine about now!

We shuffled back down the street towards our little foodless, waterless flat, sweaty, with growling stomachs and cotton-filled mouths. We had walked up and down this street three times without finding a food source! Suddenly, to the left, by a creative miracle of God’s grace, a little grocery store appeared where previously there has been none! Immediately, everything looked better! Hopes soared! I noticed the little keypad used for entering the precious password for a food-producing debit or credit card, which would bring us needed sustenance! We went through the store, gleefully adding bananas, cheeses, avocados, chocolate, breads, and all manner of life-sustaining items to our little basket! We were ecstatic! Hope was alive again! The total for this cache of gastronomical satisfaction only forty seven Euros!

Nope. Not to be. I gave my Master Card to the young French store clerk. No go. American Express? Nope. Debit card? No again. The machine wouldn’t take my plastic. I asked him to simply punch in the numbers. He said it wouldn’t work because this was France. What? France has a different system for credit cards and finance than the rest of the world?

The darkness of hunger and thirst induced despair returned. I then remembered that I had change left over from the bus and taxi fares. We pared down the contents of our basket to a few essentials of bananas, water, cheese and bread. I would somehow find Euros and return, but for now, we had the basic life-sustaining requirements. We walked back to our foodless and waterless flat, again wondering why we stayed behind. Then, to add to our despair, we could not enter the corridor of our building in order to get into our flat. The door wouldn’t unlock. Not only were we enduring food and water disappointment; now we were stuck in a foreign country and we can’t get back into our little home away from home. We stayed outside, busted out the bread, cheese, and water, and enjoyed some measure of refreshment while bemoaning the tribulations of the day.

The window! Hannah thought she had closed her window but didn’t lock it! I pushed and it opened! Hope arose once again! She clambered through the window, carefully avoiding the hydrangeas. We got back into our little flat, calmed ourselves, and I promised to find Euros and food since we were still in need and now realized we would not be able to use any plastic money in this little village.

I went into the bedroom to consider why I continually put my family through these cross-cultural trials! Hannah asked if I was going to go find Euros. I went to sleep. What was I going to do? We were told that the only bank was five to ten kilometers away, but in reality was probably 20 kilometers. The lady in the nearby hotel clearly didn’t want me to bother her again. I didn’t have a phone to call a taxi and I don’t speak French anyway!

I decided to do the man thing and conquer this problem! I got off the bed, pulled on my shoes, and told Jeannie and Hannah I was going to find Euros and get food, which, in this case, is kind of like going out and killing a buffalo and dragging it home. I walked out to the street and up the hill to the main coastal road. Surely there were buffaloes there! I walked both directions and there was no game, so I decided to sit down on a bench and wait for a native angel to walk by. After a few minutes, a friendly looking French lady came strolling down the street. I asked her if she had seen any buffaloes, “Can you help me find the nearest bank machine?” She spoke English (hooray!) told me there was an ATM just 200 meters down the street! (So much for the five to ten kilometers I was told earlier. Actually, I have discovered that in Europe it must be quite popular with some people to simply tell strangers anything you want to make them go away.)

I gathered my Euro-ammo and went to kill a buffalo. As I walked back down into the village with my pocket full of Euros, I was ready. I went back into the store that had suddenly appeared earlier in the afternoon, and found that our bag of abandoned delectables was still waiting for us behind the counter. After adding to the cache, I paid for it, and proudly walked back to the flat, fully the man, with my buffalo in my very green, recyclable European shopping bag!

After delivering the prize, I decided to go for another walk. Down the street, I noticed a British fellow sitting on a bench using his computer. Guess what? The bar down the street has free WiFi.

It’s true. It is very popular with some people in Europe to tell strangers whatever you want, since they probably don’t speak the local language anyway. They’ll never know.

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