When we came to Bangkok to work, it was on a one–year, temporary fill-in contract. We thought it would be nice to get out of the Midwest cold, and the extra money would help to lessen our sticker-shock at the cost of living in 21st century America. When the school asked Margery to extend that temp contract for one more year, well, that is really what you would call a ‘windfall’.
During our time in Istanbul we had become close to a wonderful Turkish couple, Fusun and Arman Eligolu. As we spent time together during that first five years together, and after several returns, we frequently discussed our mutual goal to someday ‘get to Paris’ and spend some time there. As Margery and I entered retirement in 2009, we actually wrote to them and sadly stated that, Alas! Paris was beyond our means. That is, it was, until our recent windfall! We quickly rationalized what well could be a very expensive vacation, and Fusun and Arman were excited at the chance for us to fulfill our long time dream.
We asked the Elioglus to please find us a ‘reasonable’ hotel during the April break this year. We placed that aspect in their hands because Fusun is fluent in French and both had been to Paris several times before. Well, reservations were made in a ‘reasonable’ hotel. Six nights at 159 Euros per night! Gulp! Do the math! Over 200 bucks a night! Still, we figured, OK…we would bite the bullet and live it up, just one time.
We flew into Charles De Gaulle airport and, trying to save a few bucks, we took the train into town. 18 dollars each (instead of 90 dollars for a taxi.) When we got to our hotel, we found that it was in a wonderful location, not far from the River Seine and all the famous sights of Paris. The hotel itself was clean, but the room was tiny! So tiny that the toilet was in one ‘closet’ and the bath in another. When you shut the toilet door and were sitting, the door touched your knees. The latch was tricky and if you bumped it slightly, it swung open to present you, fully a-throne!
No matter. We didn’t come to Paris to sit in our room. We were off immediately to see the town. We walked our legs off and believe me, it is the most beautiful city in the world. We saw museums every day, strolled through incredible gardens just coming into spring bloom, and ate some of the most fantastic food in tiny little local places. All the food and wine was wonderful and the bread is to die for. But, we quickly discovered that the dollar is pretty weak against the Euro. Breakfast was included in the hotel fees, but lunch in a small bistro was always 50 bucks or more, depending on what you had to drink. Evening meals were even more expensive, often pushing a hundred bucks per person if you had a couple of glasses of wine.
As the sixth and final day of our vacation approached, we felt that we would certainly be glad to return to Bangkok, where food and the costs of daily life are half what they are in the States and miniscule compared to France. We had had a wonderful time, but we had overspent our budget by several times.
We said goodbye to our Turkish pals, who had an afternoon flight, and began packing ourselves for our noontime flight the next day. We went out for a final supper together and, on our return to the hotel, we found out the bad news.
The airport was closed due to the volcanic eruption on Iceland! They had no idea how long the closure would be, perhaps a week, but maybe as much as a month! We pondered our limited funds and the huge dent we had already made in them. We went the next day to the offices of Malaysian air. They took our names, but asked us to ‘Check the website’. The website said, “Call this number.” We called and it was always busy. You were put in a queue to wait sometimes for 20 minutes long distance before suddenly having the connection severed. Hey…I don’t think anyone wants to talk to us!
We thought about taking a train south and flying from Italy or Greece or Turkey, but the trains were ‘on strike’! All rental cars were booked. There was literally nothing to do but wait. We went into survival mode. We moved to a cheap hotel, cheap being only 100 Euros or 130 bucks a night! The carpet was frayed and seedy, but at least you didn’t have to step over bodies to get inside. Instead of fancy restaurants, we bought a loaf of bread, some cheese and a rotisserie chicken and a bottle of cheap wine. The chicken cost 25 dollars, but hey, it lasted for three frugal meals.
We sat on the balcony of our hotel and overlooked the people on the street. Fashion models with cigarettes in hand, clowns and beggars, and men with ostentatious silk scarves strolled the sidewalk past musicians who played with incredible virtuosity, a bucket for tips at their feet. I kicked myself for not bringing a guitar. I think I might have eased the finances as a ‘trapped’ American with a sign around my neck, “Kicked in the Ash!.
Margery emailed her sister in Iowa and asked her to call the bank and tell them of our situation. They said they would cover us if need be. It all would work out. As days went by, we relaxed somewhat about the whole thing. I mean when things are beyond your control, what you gonna do? We saw more galleries and gardens (the upside) and ate more wonderful food (both a positive and negative). I had Foie Gras (goose liver) five times and inhaled duck confit and cassoulet! We saw several wonderful musical groups performing on the street and in the subways. We found a great Turkish restaurant with jovial Turks who seemed delighted that we could speak to them. We went to the local flea market and found a club called Django where gypsy jazz guitar players were in session, my highlight of the trip!
After a week, the airport suddenly re-opened, but ‘only for those with current flights and boarding passes!’ Our tickets, sadly, were for a week earlier and the internet said they would honor only current ticket holders. Our efforts to contact the airline had failed, so in the early morning we trundled our bags several blocks to a train station and rode out to the airport. There was a tremendous queue at the Malaysian Airlines ticket counter. It was the same for all airlines. We took a deep breath and looked for someone official.
Stifling the whining panic that we actually felt, we carefully and cheerfully told our story to a French employee who appeared to be a supervisor. To our surprise, he told us that he would put us on the standby list, in first position! And so, on chance and luck, we boarded the plane and flew to Bangkok via Kuala Lumpur, much lighter in the pocketbook but pleased that we had just had two irreplaceable weeks of April in Paris!
As a footnote: We found the notion of the surly French to be a myth, seemingly perpetuated by comedians and media people. Every person we encountered, waiters, hotel staff, store personnel, bus drivers and people on the street, all were extremely helpful and downright friendly to us. Vive la France!