Friday, September 24, 2010

SURVIVING EUROPE AS THE DOLLAR DIVES

                                              Even a glass of beer suddenly cost a fortune

 THE WORLD IS A FRIENDLY PLACE - EVEN WHEN YOU'RE BROKE



 Like our New Zealand cousins, Australian travellers have always seemed at the mercy of the fluctuating Yankee dollar; the Kiwi’s, poor souls, even more so than the Aussies. 
Stan and I had barely arrived in Europe on that memorable Round the World trip some years ago, when we suddenly discovered our traveller’s cheques were almost worthless, small banks and local money changers didn’t want to know us.  It was an unsettling moment.  

Suddenly even a third rate hotel room was out of our reach, a cup of coffee beyond our means, and worse, especially for my reluctant traveller, a glass of beer cost a fortune.

The money bomb dropped on the Saturday we arrived in Salzburg.  Our Euro Rail was prepaid so moving around Europe was no problem, but we had no cash; just heaps and heaps of Australian traveller’s cheques no mine host would accept for services rendered.

We booked into a small inn not far from the railway station. It was a charming little taverna, cosy rooms upstairs, bar and restaurant downstairs with huge surrounding gardens that were at that moment being set up for a charity function.

I explained to the manager we were Australians caught in the sudden financial crash and hoping to change our traveller’s cheques at a large Salzburg bank on the Monday; would he mind if we settled our account then.  No trouble, he gestured, stay and enjoy.

The garden party began later in the afternoon, long trestle tables, food and drink and a local band ensconced on a small stage playing to a dancing, singing audience.  Tombola tickets were on sale to benefit the local soccer club.  We held back like the poor cousins we obviously were; but not for long. Our mine host must have spread the word we were temporarily broke and in no time at all we had been absorbed in the crush, plied with food and drink and danced off our feet. 

That night the socialising continued on in the cosy little bar with more raucous singing and drinking.  I was bestowed the Order of the Tie, a man’s neck tie to be worn for the night with accompanying toasts.  We drank and ate and eventually made a tipsy way to our bed.  Not one pfennig of the night’s festivities had been charged to our account; our tab had been absorbed among various customers.

The following Monday as we walked into the city centre to find a bank we were hailed from every direction by our drinking companions of the Saturday night; the butcher making deliveries on his bike, the baker behind the counter, even a lady walking her youngsters to school.  Such kindness could and would never be forgotten.

But in the midst of their generosity and kindred spirit there was for me one jarring moment.  As the fund raising event came to a close on that Saturday afternoon, the Austrian band in their national costume, leather shorts, braces and alpine hats, began playing the Horst Wessel drinking song;   as the instantly recognisable tune rang out every person at the function stood and began singing the words. 

It is a rousing stirring song made popular in the 30’s and adopted in those difficult days as a Nazi anthem. But before the rise of Hitler and his cronies the song had been a fisherman’s shanty, most deservedly a beautiful, innocent tune in its own right.

I had been a child of the Second World War brought up on English and American propaganda movies and the song for me held different images,  of war and cruelty and blind obedience.  Its performance to us perhaps naive Aussies just seemed so incongruous in the happy atmosphere of that family oriented event.

Even more so, when each and every one of those people who were present that day raised their arms in the Nazi salute to the accompanying shouts of ‘Sieg Heil’, ‘Welcome Victory’.

I can only imagine it was shouted in the spirit of fair play, a football club hopeful and intent on a winning season.

_________


DON’T LET THE BED BUGS BITE


The Isle of Skye visited before we knew our forebears were born there.


As sure as day turns to night, independent travellers will eventually have to find somewhere to call home, a place of refuge, a comfortable bed hopefully without bed bugs.  All of these requirements of course depend on your current budget.

During the currency crash my reluctant traveller and I were ultra conscious of the huge chasm between us and travellers from other countries, especially those from the good old United States.  We were never ones to seek out five star establishments but we did look for comfort, cleanliness and relevant calm. 

 London was one destination where we seriously felt the crunch and envied the yanks swanning around with their value packed dollars.  A humble bed and breakfast suddenly took on the cost of the five star Ritz.

OK, OK I exaggerate, but only a little.  £40 in UK money became $160 and more in ours,  considerably less  to the well heeled yanks.  We found we could afford, without sinking to a teenage dorm, an Irish run boarding house on the outskirts of the Bakerloo line.  A noisy, blowsy, rock hard bedded boarding house with share facilities, which is usual in such accommodation, but in this case meant perched on a landing between two floors of prison size rooms.

The long anticipated bath before bed required a major scrub and polish before either of us ventured to put even a toe into the grimy, dirt ringed bath tub.  We stayed just the one night.

In Scotland we found ourselves homeless.  Actually my stubborn husband was the culprit.  Elsewhere in this book I will  touch on his preference to keep moving until the sun begins to set, passing all those quaint little towns that just beg to be explored at leisure; little dots on the map with oodles of places to stay.

We had spent the previous night on the Isle of Skye where the landlady informed us baths were rationed to one a day and we would have to wait until the next morning for ours.  I think she had detected our Aussie accents and knew only too well the excessive time we spent in the bath water.

Anyway we were bowling along the countryside, arrived eventually in Glasgow and strolled around the town, moved on into the countryside, taking side roads and byways until I began looking anxiously at the time. 

‘Shouldn’t we look for a pub or a bed and breakfast soon,’ I hopefully suggested.

‘Plenty of time yet, we’ll drive on a bit further’.

Famous last words.

The next town had no beds to offer, and the next, and further on, that one and a few more to come.  In the distance I could see the lights of Edinburgh, a beautiful city we had already explored a week or so before...

I grabbed the map, we should take the next major road south and wend our way back west towards Lanark.  We did with twilight approaching and endless signs advising us their establishments were full up, not a bed to spare.  If our little hire car had been a donkey I could have been a hugely pregnant Mary and Stan would have been Joseph. The result would have been the same except we couldn’t even find a vacant stable.

We pulled to a halt, our fruitless search had reached 9pm and I was tired and hungry.  Across the road was the local constabulary.  I opened the car door with Stan emphatically telling me he wasn’t going to spend the night in the cells, no way, we could doss down in the car.

But I had visions of all those kind, thoughtful cops on English TV, the ones who sprout wisdom and common sense as they combat the country’s growing crime wave.

I approached the front desk and let it all out in one gasp, we can’t find anywhere to stay!

What a lovely man he was, in his gorgeous Geordie accent he got on the blower, and at his third attempt he smiled at me with the thumbs up sign.

We stayed the night at a local farm in a room where the walls were plastered with numerous gymkhana ribbons the daughter of the house had won on her various ponies...and the breakfast of course, a hearty hospitable affair.

And the moral of this story?  Always trust your neighbourhood cop, he knows his beat far better than anyone.

©Robyn Mortimer 2010