Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What if disaster strikes while I'm in Europe?

Boomers, You Can Do It!  Part 2
Irish Countryside

"Not only can you travel independently to Europe, but you can do it much more cheaply and easily than you thought possible."

I always hope that sentence will galvanize my listener into action so that he'll race to buy my book, Europe on a Dime: Five-Star Travel on a One-Star Budget, and start planning a trip. After all, the book holds your hand, step-by-step, so you can plan a European experience that is easy on the budget.  Truly, Europe on a Dime practically makes the reservations for you!

But no matter how sincerely I promise to walk people through the process, it's never quite that easy to convince them.  No matter how tantalizing the thought of traipsing down the Champs d'Elysee or cruising the canals of Venice, there's usually a "yes, but...." counter to my promise of cheap and meaningful travel.

So, it's time to face those "yes, buts...." in the next few blog posts.  We're going to take a look at the fears which keep people rooted to their La-Z-Boy recliners when they could be sauntering down exotic cobblestone alleys.  We'll confront the objections head-on in hopes that everyone will soon feel confident enough to plan a European trip.

I think one of the fears that keeps people firmly at home is the Disaster Fear.  What if something terrible happens like a lost passport, stolen wallet, or a car accident?  While everyone has resources here at home to cope with these traumas, most of us worry about handling a disaster in Europe.

The truth is that the skills you use to solve problems here will stand you in good stead in another country.  If you are resourceful in your home country, you won't have difficulty finding ways to easily solve whatever problem arises in Europe.  Handling a major problem would not be your choice, of course, and most likely nothing untoward will ever happen to you on any trip, but allowing that fear to keep you trapped at home is a serious mistake.  You can cope if you need to.

I have had a flat tire in the Brittany area of France and a few other physical disasters I'll discuss in another post.  But I knew I could cope with all those problems because of the first trip I made to Ireland fifteen years ago when disaster struck not once, but three times. 

After my friend and colleague, Jane, spent a week with her boyfriend in Pennsylvania, she and I were to meet at JFK Airport in New York City for our charter flight to Ireland.  There, at Shannon, the largest city on the Ireland's west coast, a rental car and seven nights at B and B's were part of the irresistibly inexpensive package.

The first disaster occurred when Jane did not show up at the airport.  After I arrived from North Carolina, I waited for hours.  No one answered the phone at her boyfriend's house, and, in this era before cell phones, I had no other way to reach her.  Had she been in an accident on the way to the airport?  Did she miss the plane?  Had her boyfriend had a heart attack? Did she have a heart attack?

I stood there, adrift in a sea of people who were striding purposefully along the airport corridors.  I was the only one who couldn't move, seemingly moored in place by the stream of never-ending announcements on the public address system, none of which told me to go to a courtesy phone for a call from Jane.

She had to be coming, right?  We had just talked yesterday about our itinerary, planning to explore all the villages on the west side of Ireland (We had no desire to see Dublin or the east coast.), and Jane was packed and anticipating the send-off party her boyfriend was throwing for her.  Where was she?

I asked everyone who came within earshot what I should do, go on or stay and wait indefinitely for Jane, but it was the gate attendant who made the decision for me.  He told me my suitcase was going to Ireland whether I was on the plane or not.

I forced my legs to move and got on the plane.

Then I had new concerns to fret about.  During the entire eight-hour flight I worried about what would happen when I got to Ireland.  Jane was supposed to drive the manual shift car because I hadn't driven a stick in 25 years, and in exchange, I had promised to be the navigator.  Neither one of us had ever driven on the "wrong side," the left side of the road, and I'd promised to help with that, too.  Now I'd either have to camp at the airport or drive that car, somehow, to the B and B we'd reserved for the first day.

After 24 hours of sleepless travel, I picked up the car, nearly got killed making the first left turn, stopped and started and jerked to the B and B, and finally collapsed on the bed after explaining my entire story to the B and B hostess.

She woke me just ten minutes later to tell me Jane was on the phone.  Jane, whose plane in Pittsburgh had been cancelled (The airlines had not notified her because they did not have her boyfriend's phone number.), finally got to JFK where she spent the night on the floor.  After arguing with the charter company for an hour, they finally agreed to fly her to Ireland the next day.  But they weren't landing in Shannon.  They would only take her to Belfast, almost a hundred miles north of the Republic of Ireland.  Take it or leave it.

Jane gamely said she'd take the train from Belfast to Dublin (Did I mention this was Jane's first trip to Europe?)  Would I be able to drive to the city and meet her at the train station.  I was so tired and so delighted she was still alive to drive that blasted car that I said yes.
Bunratty Castle, Shannon, Ireland

It was only after a good eight hours' sleep that I realized I'd agreed to drive across a foreign country on the left side of the road in a stick shift car, to try to find my friend at the train station in the bustling capital of Dublin, on my very first full day in Ireland.

I suppose at this point I could have panicked, had Jane paged at the Dublin train station, and stayed where I was, safe and sound, at a lovely bed and breakfast.  Surely she could have taken another train to reach Shannon.

But I gave myself the advice I'm going to give you.  When you encounter a problem, do your best to work around it and you may discover it wasn't as disastrous as you anticipated.  You might even learn a valuable lesson in the process.

I don't want to sound like Pollyanna, but what I learned on that trip to Ireland was that I was far more resourceful than I realized.  Isolating all the components in the problem made it more manageable. As long as I tackled just one step at a time, I'd be okay.

So I got maps and directions from my bed and breakfast host, practiced my shifting skills in a church parking lot, and eventually set off for Dublin, if not with confidence, at least with enthusiasm.  After all, how many people get to see the entire country on their very first day in Ireland?

And, guess what?  It was a delightful ride.  I was soon shifting like Mario Andretti, clinging to the shoulder when an Irishman wanted to create a passing lane on the two-lane freeway, (This is a frequent practice in Ireland.) and being serenaded by the gas station attendant who sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" when I confessed I didn't know what town I was in.  I found Jane at a train station table sipping coffee with two other travelers, and we celebrated our victory by deciding to stop for dinner as soon as we got out of rush hour traffic.

After all this, you probably won't believe it when I tell you that there was one more disaster in store for us.  Jane realized an hour later and twenty miles down the road, that she'd left all her money along with her passport and return ticket back at the restaurant.

There was no choice but to retrace our route and pray that the people in that fast food restaurant were honest.  Incredibly, they were.   The wallet wasn't in the bathroom where Jane thought she'd left it, but it was behind the counter, safe in the hands of the manager.

Even though we were on the side of the country we'd never planned to see,  we met some delightful people and were enchanted by beautiful rolling countryside on that memorable trip to Ireland.  Oh, and after all that practice, I've never again had trouble driving a manual transmission.

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