At the risk of embarrassing myself I will share one of my most valuable travel lessons. It was my first trip to Europe and I was 21 years old. A friend and I were going to travel to as many places we could squeeze into our month abroad. We arrived in Paris and I'll never forget riding the escalator up from the Metro stop. As we slowly ascended to sidewalk level the Arc de Triomphe came into full view and I was in love. Paris was the most beautiful city I had ever seen! However it took an ugly turn when we located our hotel in a rundown area of this gorgeous city. The Hotel Rex reminded me of one of those abandoned decrepit buildings in horror movies where guests check in and never check out. But it was cheap so that was good enough for us! The hotel was so narrow that it could only accommodate one room per floor. I remember trudging up and down the 6 flights of dimly lit stairs every day and trying to put a positive spin on it by reminding myself that I was getting in really good shape.
Being the exceptionally good daughter that I am I decided it was time to call my parents to tell them what a marvelous time I was having and to calm their nerves so they would know that I wasn't dead. The plan for the day was to visit the Louvre. It was still early in the morning so I decided that I had plenty of time to call home before we left for the Louvre. Keep in mind this was before cell phones and GPS devices. At 7:30 am I confidently told my friend I was going to go call my folks and would be back shortly. It was a beautiful sunny day and I easily found a nearby pay phone. However, when I approached it I saw that all the wires were sticking out so it obviously wasn't working. That did not deter me and I headed across the street to another pay phone. When I reached the phone booth I noticed a man inside trying to make a call but that phone too was inoperable. The man indicated there was a post office around the corner where we could make our calls. Sure enough there were phones at the post office but apparently I needed coins to dial out. Naively I assumed I didn't need to bring money with me (first mistake). I then headed back to the hotel to get some money. Wow, I knew I crossed a couple of streets and then went around a corner but to do it in reverse was very difficult especially since I had been directionally challenged since birth. I went back to where I thought I had started only to realize that nothing looked familiar. Now if I could just remember the street name where our hotel was located! Second major mistake. I held my panic at bay because I knew it was early in the day and I had time on my side. I remembered the name of the hotel so asked everyone I saw including two police officers who were no help. Most people I asked had never heard of the Rex Hotel or perhaps this lowly one star hotel was not significant enough for savvy Parisian's to remember.
Finally, my head began to clear as I spotted a post office and I had an idea. I'll look in a phone book and hopefully find our hotel with a street address. It was worth a shot. I entered the building and found some phones with phonebooks attached. I slowly and methodically read each and every hotel name and then I saw it - The Rex Hotel. I could have kissed the phone book but I refrained. Since I did not have a pen or paper (3rd mistake) I ripped out the hotel info and carried it with me. I then asked the first woman I saw and showed her the slip of paper. She did not speak English but nodded and motioned me to follow her. We only walked about 2 blocks when she pointed down a narrow street and I saw my beloved or not so beloved hotel. I was so grateful to be lugging my exhausted self up the 6 flights of stairs. I entered our hotel room 3 hours after I had left and I wasn't the only one overjoyed. My friend had been getting so worried and was seriously considering her next move. Should she notify the police or go out looking for me? Her greatest fear (and rightly so) was "How am I going to tell Salle's parents?!"
Needless to say I learned so much from that experience and tell all first time travelers to always do the following:
Even if you think you are going to be staying close to your hotel ALWAYS carry money with you. In my situation if I had money and the street address I could have easily taken a taxi to the hotel.
When you check in to your hotel grab business cards for every member of your family and make sure your children carry the card at all times. It can also double as writing material.
If you have a cell phone use it. Call your spouse, friend, traveling companion to come get you or they can verbally guide you back to the hotel. I also think that carrying a GPS device is a great investment and will help you navigate an unfamiliar city.
I recently was relaying this harrowing experience to my 12 year old daughter hoping to teach her what I had to learn the hard way. She listened to my story and my expert and well intentioned advice. After a brief pause she looked at me, in that special way only a Tween can look, and in her most dismissive voice stated, "I would have already known that stuff. It's pretty obvious what you should have done and I never would have gotten lost in the first place!" I think there may have been an eye roll that accompanied her statement. Ah the certainty of youth!