Tuesday, March 17, 2009

You May as Well be Poor in Europe...

In the Fall of 2007 when Bob was still making the big bucks, we won six nights at two five-star luxury hotels in Europe at a silent auction for charity. We were the only bidders. It was a deal, it was for charity and it would make an amazing second honeymoon. The hotels were- Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland and Chateau Grand Barrail in St. Emilion, France.

Fast forward eleven months to us both being unemployed and near penniless. But we still had these two hotel stays, enough frequent flier miles to get us to Europe and a lot of time. We talked about it, do we let them expire, or do we go? It seemed crazy. The euro was so much stronger than the dollar at the time. Almost double. We were running out of money fast. But we thought about it and figured that we would have to find a way to eat here just as we would if we were there. I talked to my mom about it and she said: “If you’re poor anyway, you may as well be poor in Europe” and her logic agreed with us. We would eat in markets, not restaurants. We’d walk and take public transportation. We'd only visit free attractions. No pricey museums. We'd interact with locals. We’d live like backpackers and stay in hostels in between the prepaid luxury hotel stays. How hard could it be?

We booked a flight and scheduled the hotel stays for September. If we got jobs in the meantime, we would just let our new employers know that this trip was scheduled. We figured the house would sell itself while we were away. We even anticipated having to figure out the signing of documents while we were abroad. We thought for sure we’d at least come back to an offer. Perhaps even a bidding war over our wonderful house that was being sold for a song. It all fit logically. We’d be crazy to let this trip expire. And even though money would undoubtedly be tight while we were there, we’d find a way to make it work.

When we left, we still didn’t have jobs. Bob did have a possibility, though. He had interviewed with a very large and reputable non-profit foundation that seemed very interested in him. We both thought he had it in the bag. So there was at least that. The carrot dangling before us. We thought, “Fine, we’ll go… let the 'universe' to its work and come home to multiple job offers as well as offers on the house.” We counted on that. And so we moved forward with our plan. We sold my cruiser bike, saxophone and guitar and Bob’s old iPod just before we left to have money for food. We boarded our non-stop flight from LAX to Dublin on Aer Lingus full of nervous anticipation. I ordered a glass of wine. They charged me 5 euro. And so it began. The magical disappearance of money.

I remember going to the first hotel in Paris- this wasn’t one of the prepaid hotels- and thinking we were totally and completely insane. That we should turn around and fly back to California immediately. We were out of our minds to be here. Not to mention we didn’t ‘deserve’ to be here. Visions of us stealing rolls off of other people’s cafĂ© tables in order to stave off hunger flashed before my eyes. I was convinced: we would hit bottom here. In Europe. Buried alive under the weight of the all powerful and gloating Euro: “Look how strong I am you stupid American dollar. I will crush you!” And in French it sounded even worse. A beautiful accent painted on a horrible reality. What the eff were we doing here?! How stupid could we be?!

Two days later- after 48 hours of "trying to enjoy Paris" and "live in the moment" while suppressing a massive anxiety attack- we were on a train headed to St. Moritz. To the Alps. To prepaid luxury. To a complimentary fully stocked mini bar. To a room with a view of the most beautiful mountains in the world (at least that I’ve had the privilege of seeing) and a stunning alpine lake. To a king sized bed. To plush bath robes and slippers. To breakfast buffets and free internet access. To Swiss chocolate on our pillows every night. To endless hiking trails through Heidi country. To a once in a lifetime opportunity. To the reason we were here.

When the TGV (French High-Speed Train) pulled away from the Gare du Nord that morning, it was still dark. We both fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up to muted light and morning fog across the French countryside. This was a good train. We glided. We didn’t rock or click. Or sway nauseatingly. But glide. Smoothly. Peacefully. Bob continued to sleep soundly by my side. It hit me. I hadn’t been on a train in Europe in 12 years. Bob had never been on a train in Europe. This was his first. We were really here. I was on a train gliding across the French countryside with my husband. I let that sink in. There was truly nowhere else in that very moment I would rather be. I found my breath. A deep and satisfying inhale. Finally. I let it out, opened my journal and this is what I wrote:

Being on this train has been the most peaceful I’ve felt this trip thus far. Something about being carried… cradled. It’s comforting. I’m just along for the ride, not navigating or driving. Money has been a major stressor- or the lack thereof, rather. Major. Bob and I have some serious creating to do. Major miracle working. I know we can. I know we’re capable of it. Being here- abroad… so far away from home has had almost the opposite effect I anticipated. I expected to feel carefree, but it’s actually brought our reality into sharper focus. We’re swinging from branch to branch and the next branch is there…. I can see it… we just haven’t been able to swing ourselves far enough to grab a hold. This causes a feeling of doom. What if we don’t grab it? What if we fall? How will we ever climb back up? That is what causes my anxiety. It buries itself in my chest and esophagus- it presses on me making sure I feel the severity- the desperate need to grab that branch. Launch myself. Fly. And that’s what there is to do. Let go. And fly.

-The hotel in St. Moritz: Badrutt's Palace
-The hotel in St. Emilion: Chateau Grand Barrail
-The WONDERFUL charity that benefited from our European Vacation: Corazon de Vida


The View from our Badrutt's Palace room in St. Moritz:



Dinner in St. Moritz consisted of cheese, ham, bread, plums and a 2 euro bottle of wine we bought at the local market:



Breakfast in St. Emilion consisted of the French equivalent of Frosted Flakes, an orange and a bit of chocolate that we bought at the tiny and only market located 5 kilometers from the hotel (we couldn't afford to rent bikes or take cabs which meant that we walked at least 10 kilometers a day in St. Emilion) and complimentary coffee from the room:

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