I don’t mean to brag, but I excel in designing vacations in which, upon landing in a different country, of a different time zone, that speaks a different native language, I arrive completely stranded. No matter how far in advance I reserve a hotel, Phil and I inevitably end up standing on a foreign cobblestone street bearing nothing but useless confirmation emails and sleep deprivation.
It began with our honeymoon last June. We decided to go to Athens, figuring nothing celebrates a union better than a protest-ridden city on the brink of seceding from the union. You say walks on the beach and candlelight dinners? I say riot shields and tear gas.
At the airport, I handed a taxi driver the address (Timoleontos Vassou 22) of our destination–a 4.5 star luxury boutique hotel called The Angel Suites. It took the man a while to maneuver the city center, given that many streets were packed with screaming maalox-painted demonstrators. (When we initially drove passed them, in my foreign affairs ignorance I chirped, “Oh look, a street fair.” Hopefully the cabbie thought I just had a very dry sense of humor.)
I wasn’t familiar with Athens but, after a while, it seemed as if we were driving in circles. And why was the driver looking from the hotel information to the buildings and back in confusion?
He pulled the cab to the side of the road in front of a Best Western. “I’ll be back,” the Greek Arnold said with a nervous smile and then hopped out of the cab, taking our email confirmation paper with him. Phil and I looked at each other and shrugged. We had been traveling for 12 hours. Slathered in plane grease and exhaustion, he could have said he just needed to run in and smash some plates and we would have thought it a reasonable pit stop.
Five minutes later he returned, popped his trunk, and removed our luggage.
“Excuse me, sir? I don’t think this is our hotel. Our hotel is called The Angel Suites,” I said.
He again flashed me that nervous smile. “Yes. Talk to the lady. She will tell you.” He dropped our two luggage pieces inside The Best Western and was back in his cab driving away before he finished the sentence.
Inside, The Lady informed us in broken English that this was indeed the correct address, but that the hotel we reserved in August the following year was bankrupted in September. The Best Western replaced it in January and The Angel Suites, The Best Western, and our travel agent all assumed one of the previously mentioned parties would catch us up to speed. It was now June, at 4 am our time, we had been up all night, and had nowhere to stay.
“Well, do you have any room at this inn?” I asked, lip trembling. The Lady did not.
Long story short: After a soggy breakdown in which I whined, “But this is our honeymoon” at a pitch only dogs can hear; a two hour nap on The Best Western lobby sofa; several angry emails to our travel agent; and a spanakopita (spinach and cheese filled pastry); things were sorted out and we really enjoyed the rest of our trip.
A year later, swap a kalimera for a bonjour and a spanakopita for a crepe and Phil and I had some Pepe le Pew style deja vu.
On this trip across the Atlantic, we were scheduled to stay in a woman’s Paris apartment, who we would learn didn’t understand the critical value in being at the apartment when we arrived. We called her from a payphone and were greeted by voicemail. After waiting with our luggage in front of a closed door for fifteen minutes, we went forth to find Internet, thinking maybe she emailed us about being late.
Manhattan is designed like college campuses with Emergency Call Boxes– from any given Starbucks, a caffeine seeker can locate her next source of skinny vanilla lattes. I hoped Paris had been inspired by our ugly consumerism, so we dragged our luggage down the street, searching for a Starbucks, American’s favorite Wifi hot spot.
Voila! A Starbucks! Oh, but the Internet is broken today. Where is the nearest Internet cafe? Around the corner! Magnifique! Oh, but it’s closed.
Feeling desperate, I walked into a small hotel across the street from the Internet cafe. Behind the desk sat a woman with a bun tied so tight that I worried, if undone, her face might fall off.
“Excuse me, do you have Internet here?”
“Yes. But only for customers.”
“I have nowhere to go. I need to get in touch with the person I’m staying with. Can I pay you to use the Internet for ten minutes?”
“No. There is Internet across the street.”
“Okay well, do you have any room here?”
Madame Meanie needed to pull the baguette from her basket.
We dragged our feet back to the apartment. Still no answer.
A woman with a cloud of white hair appeared from nextdoor. She said something in French, we said something in English. She motioned inside of her apartment. Peeking into the doorway, we found a dog the size of a small horse and enough clutter to qualify her for a segment on A&E. We smiled and said merci but no merci. We’d rather not be murdered.
Having failed our journey to find Internet, we embarked on a separate but similar quest for a telephone. This odyssey ended half a block away at a hostel masquerading as Practic Hotel, which I assume was short for practically a hotel.
We walked into the dark lobby and, behind a mahogany desk, sat a thirty-something man who looked like a spy movie villain that was fated to be outwitted.
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
“Would it be possible to use your phone?”
“Yes, but you must first wait,” he said, as this were obvious and we had just violated hotel policy. He gestured into a room across the hall, where we found a bored looking bald man sitting in an uncomfortable chair. We rolled our luggage across the hall and…. waited.
The doomed villain shuffled some papers around. He looked out the window. He tapped his fingers on the desk. A smudge caught his eye, and he polished it with his sleeve. He glanced at his watch.
“Okay, come in,” he said, and the bald man did. (We would come to find that this was the villain’s signature move. No matter how simple our question, he would find some pencils to organize so that we could spend our due time in the waiting room before he answered it. Talk about a Napoleon complex.)
Long story short: We called the apartment owner again and again got voicemail so, with nowhere else to go, we spent the night at the Practically-a-Hotel Hotel. We schlepped our luggage up five flights of a winding staircase and slept in a room big enough for a king size bed and nothing more, equipped with a bathroom so tiny that my knees banged against the wall when I sat on the toilet.
I regress into a tired child when exhausted by travel. Everything around me looks yucky, but all is better after a nap and a snack. After we passed out in the Pratic Hotel and woke up to have a crepe, the apartment owner reached us and the issue was resolved the next day. The rest of our week was a prixe fixe meal of romance slathered culture served with a side of nutella.
In conclusion, I now know myself well enough that, when planning a vacation, I need to double book for the first night, or at least pack a waterproof sleeping bag fit for an international alley.