Occasionally in our travels, we make mistakes.
We take 36 shots of the inside of a lens cap.
We glance away from the scenery and find ourselves in the middle of a completely strange tour group.
We put into our suitcases bottles of perfume with caps that are on almost tight enough.
We forget what the car we rented looks like or where we parked it.
We can’t recall the name of the hotel we called for reservations.
In the course of an introduction, we forget our spouse’s name.
Normal little mistakes.
It’s the bigger ones that need special consideration, that make us stand back, shudder and gasp, “What was I thinking?”
So many of those involve the same basic error--unwise purchases--that they’re worth special consideration.
When I was a young man I went to San Francisco for a weekend.
When you go on a trip, you bring back presents for those at home. It’s a tradition. So I bought my 4-year-old nephew a set of finger paints.
Good old uncle Bob, right?
Wrong. My sister was very upset. She told me that if I ever did “a thing like that” again, she would cease speaking to me forever. Since we had been adversaries all of our lives, I thought she probably meant it. I swore I’d be good. No more messy toys.
The following year I went to New York. I brought the same nephew a 50-shot water rifle. After all, how much of a mess can a kid make with plain water?
Shudder, gasp. “What was I thinking?”
My nephew is 38 years old now. That’s a lot of silence.
Large Cuckoo Clock
In Geneva one year a couple in our tour group, Byron Stocks (not his real name) and his wife, Lucille, fell in love with a cuckoo clock.
It had all sorts of hardwood carvings encircling a dark wood Swiss chalet from which a cuckoo emerged hourly. It had chimes and pine cone-shaped solid brass counter-weights, weighed 43 pounds and was three feet tall.
Because the price the merchant wanted for crating and shipping seemed excessive, the Stocks got a bit huffy and said they’d just take it with them on their bus, whereupon the bus driver got a bit huffy, claimed he had been hired to transport people and their luggage, not cuckoo clocks, and refused to touch the thing.
By the end of the tour Byron referred to it as the “albatross clock.” When Byron got caught by Lucille as he was about to drop it off the car ferry on the way back to the United Kingdom, the result was almost an instant divorce.
The Stocks did not take the same aircraft back to the States as the rest of us. The airline could not quite accept the uncrated albatross as a carry-on.
In a later communication Lucille mentioned that although it seemed to awaken Byron every hour on the hour, the clock was stunning in her living room.
She had, however, been forced into a compromise. Her husband had made her agree to let a clockmaker inactivate the quarter-hour chime.
Dollars and Zlotys
Money can also be a dangerous bargain. On our first trip behind the Iron Curtain our tour guide advised us that the exchange rate on the Polish zloty would be 250 to the dollar.
When the Polish state guide got on the bus at the border, he told us that the Polish government had given him special permission to offer tourists 600 zlotys to the dollar.
He also advised that it might be unwise to buy zlotys on the black market. The word “gulag” appeared a time or two in the advisory.
We all bought zlotys in small amounts from the Polish guide.
Outside our hotel in Warsaw, some of us were approached by Peter Lorre types and offered first 800, then 900 and finally 1,000 zlotys for an American dollar.
The next morning, one of our number confided, somewhat smugly, that he had become wealthy. The previous evening he had bought half a million zlotys for only 400 dollars.
“That’s about 1,200 to the dollar. Pretty good, huh?”
There was a long silence at the breakfast table till someone who had been to Poland before said, “It’ll be interesting to see what you buy with them.”
“Well,” said the half-millionaire, “I saw some crystal in a shop window at one-twentieth the price it was in West Berlin.”
Warsaw Shop Windows
In Warsaw, what one sees in shop windows is seldom what one can buy inside. He was told he could order the crystal and would be informed as to when he could pick it up.
It would not be long, perhaps only a year or two. Not really so bad considering that the average waiting period for a new car in Poland is seven years.
The day before we were to leave, the half-millionaire announced that he was going take his losses, accept the government rate and buy dollars with his zloty fortune.
“From whom?” asked our tour guide. “The Polish government does not buy zlotys. It only sells zlotys.”
In Venice, off St. Mark’s Square, there’s a place the tour directors refer to as the glass factory. Each day, numerous tour groups sit down in front of a glass furnace and get a demonstration of glass blowing. You tend to get a little overheated, but it’s worth it.
Then the guests are given time to visit the salesrooms and marvel at the wondrous creations of the company’s artisans.
My wife Joyce and I have been there twice, and each time the man in the salesroom seemed to have an “accident” while showing some of the glassware.
In front of everyone he tips a tray of thin-stemmed red wine glasses. They all fall over, banging against each other, and maybe one or two drop to the carpeted floor, yet none of them break.
That simple “accident” invariably astonishes everyone and just as invariably sells a lot of glasses.
Glasses in Venice
A couple from our tour group really got excited.
“Good Lord, Bernard,” said the woman, “did you see that?”
The man, as astonished as his wife, nodded. “Should have been broken to smithereens.”
“I have just got to have a set of those, Bernard.”
Bernard looked at his wife as if she was crazy. “Are you out of your mind?” he asked. “Those are wine glasses.”
“No, they’re juice glasses and I’ve just got to have them.”
While Bernard’s wife bought the glasses and arranged for the company to ship them, Joyce and I talked to him.
“What’s so crazy about buying wine glasses?” Joyce asked. “They’re beautiful.”
“What are we going to do with ‘em? Up until two years ago I did my drinking out of a brown paper bag.”
He shook his head.
“Since I went on the wagon, we don’t even hang around people unless they’ve got blue noses. I’m AA. She’s Alanon and the WCTU and a dozen other anti-drinking church groups.”
“Bernard,” said his wife, “we’ll use them for our orange juice. I just can’t not buy them.”
They Were a Flop
She bought them. The glass factory was happy to ship them.
Eight months later, Bernard dropped us a line. The orange juice idea hadn’t worked out too well. The first morning they used them, they had sat down at the breakfast table to a bright morning sun streaming through the kitchen window. The only trouble was, when the sun hit those red glasses, it made whatever was inside look like blood.
His wife had decided to relegate the glasses to a position of honor on a kitchen shelf, but lately had announced that they tended to make her whole kitchen look tacky, so she was thinking about redecorating.
Knowing the redecorating would spread through the house like wildfire, Bernard was thinking of “accidentally” putting the glasses to the test one more time. There was a Mexican tile floor in the kitchen.
I have my own particular travel-purchase failing. At about the first duty-free shop we come to on any trip we take, I buy a bottle of my favorite English sherry. It’s such a bargain, and I like a little before dinner.
Of course, I have to be extra careful with my hand luggage until it’s all gone. But what the heck, it’s the price you pay and, after all, wine stains aren’t really all that hard to get out.