Have you ever had a friend with whom you got along well, well enough to plan a trip together? And then, a few hours into the adventure you realized your misjudgment? That’s exactly what happened with Gabriel, the man I was ‘seeing’ during the latter half of my time stranded-by-choice in France. The experience reinforced my suspicion that I have much more difficulty in detecting stupidity when navigating in a foreign language. Perhaps, deep down, I’m impressed by someone’s fluency in a language with which I struggle. Or perhaps I just feel so gleefully victorious when I understand and communicate on a superficial survival level that I don’t take the time to reflect on the substance of what transpires.
In Chapter 13 of An American in Pandemic Paris. A Coming-of-Retirement Age Memoir, I relate an incident that occurred on the return of Gabriel and me to Paris from Antibes in late February that should have been a warning. In the midst of pandemic lockdown and curfew—when it wasn’t easy finding either accommodations or places to eat in France—Gabriel, the earnest and well-intentioned, booked a motel just north of Avignon for our first night because he had long wanted to visit the nearby charming mountain town of Gordes. In all fairness, I should disclose that he booked a wonderful guest room in the antique-filled, semi-luxurious second-oldest domestic dwelling in France (in the town of Cluny) for our second night. But the motel. It resembled a truckers’ tryst spot, an impression reinforced by the jet-black hair arranged into a beehive by the non-mask-wearing proprietor and by her burly, non-mask-wearing tattooed husband and the brothel-like décor: deep purple and fire-engine red walls, silver-gilded mirrors whose frames were adorned with white feathers, crushed velvet bedspreads. I was glad we didn’t have a black light. Gabriel seemed non-plussed as he began to sign the paperwork to stay in this WiFi-free purgatory. I felt off-put and unsafe hygiene-wise, insisting we stay elsewhere, which we did. But I was taken aback by his finding such accommodations acceptable.
Fast forward to March 2021. Gabriel and I met and spent a few days in Chicago before returning to my home in Purgatory for several more days prior to our long-planned trip to Costa Rica. I booked a convenient Air BnB in the River North neighborhood, timing my arrival for two hours after his at O’Hare. That way, we should have arrived around the same time. He showed up five hours later, never having texted to notify me of his delay. And that was because he didn’t think there was one, not realizing, apparently, that the arrival time he sent me had never been the actual arrival time of his flight. When I brought this up, he shrugged his shoulders. Those feelings of exasperation that I’d felt periodically in his company resurfaced, exacerbated by his next, unintentional error.
The only thing I had asked him to bring me from Paris was extra aged COW’S MILK Gouda, ideally from my favorite Cheeseman at the place Monge marché. I stressed cow’s milk, because I’d sampled the sheep’s milk variant and it tasted too, how shall I say, barnyardy. Gabriel first proudly presented me with a lovely and thoughtful bottle of Chanel perfume—a must for women, in his book—and a half kilo of, you guessed it, sheep’s milk Gouda, extra aged and purchased from Cheeseman. I smelled the unpleasant odor as soon as I sliced open the hermetically sealed plastic wrapping.
“It isn’t cow?” a wide-eyed Gabriel enquired, a farm boy somehow unable to distinguish between cow smell and sheep smell.
“No,” I replied, rewrapping the cheese and sticking it in the fridge.
As far as Costa Rica planning went, the only part he was responsible for was arranging car rental. Although I prefer booking shuttles rather than driving on often rutty, poorly signed dirt roads, Gabriel had informed me that he became bored staying in one place (I’d booked two nights in the Monte Verde ‘Cloud Forest’, and eight in my favorite, rustic cabin by the sea on the Pacific Coast). This way, he could explore by car, while I enjoyed the tranquility and simplicity of life in this magical spot.
Upon arrival at the airport, we headed to the car rental, and the vehicle he’d reserved turned out to be twice as expensive as advertised, even with only the required frills (insurance). And, while an SUV makes most sense under Costa Rican conditions, Gabriel had booked the cheapest car, one suited to driving on well-maintained asphalt. He had unflagging confidence in the accuracy of his judgment based on that fact that fifty years ago he’d spent his two-years of military service working at the French Embassy in Nicarauga; Gabriel considered himself a Spanish-speaking expert on all things Latin American. He had not visited Central America since the 1970s. As it turned out, he understood little about Latin American culture and, if he ever had learned Spanish, he evidently had forgotten it (while simultaneously asserting his expertise), since he tasked me, who had no pretense of speaking or understanding Spanish sufficient for travel needs, to ask locals for information.
By the time we departed the rental agency, it was 4:30. Rush hour in Alejuela, the town where the main airport is located, and ninety minutes from total darkness. Our destination was Monte Verde, a three-hour drive under optimal conditions. Gabriel intended to find the way there with the help of the Googlemaps directions he’d printed before leaving France at his Fontenay-sous-Bois apartment. There were more than forty ‘steps’. At the airport, I’d mentioned the importance of having a functioning cell phone (I required a local SIM card), and he insisted that his French phone was sufficient to our purposes. After asking for directions out of town from two police officers, who chuckled and shook their heads with a ‘these gringos are gonna be driving in circles in Alajuela until it’s time for them to head back to the U.S.’ attitude, and several others, who insisted that the only way we’d find our way was to download WAZE, Gabriel decided we should just pick a road and drive on it and then, magically, we’d find the rest of the route. I could not imagine what prior experience led him to that optimistic conclusion.
I suggested finding a hotel, blowing off the $30 we’d pre-spent on a little hotel in Monte Verde, but he, the parsimonious, insisted ‘no!’ I became fearful about being stranded or having an accident, so as he passed a corner with a phone shop, I opened the door, which prompted him to stop. I told him I was going to buy a SIM card for my phone, since he refused to download WAZE. It took a Latin American amount of time with a team of five helpful young men to secure a $10 card sufficient, I was assured, for ten days of virtually unlimited use. After ten minutes, Gabriel (double parked at a busy intersection) came in to see how things were going. He was in a rush to leave. I asked him if he’d locked the car, where our computers and passports were, and he replied, ‘no’. l asked if he could please go lock the car and then walk a half block to an ATM and cash 150 euros in Costa Rican coloń. Off he went. I finished the SIM card transaction after several minutes and went to wait by the car, which was locked with all the windows open! I judged it a miracle that no one had stolen anything.
Twenty minutes later, Gabriel returned. He’d had trouble understanding how the ATM worked (although it undoubtedly offered a selection of languages). Off we went, now with a clear path to our destination, partly on toll, partly on unpaved roads through the jungle. I again requested finding a hotel nearby, unwinding, and making a new start tomorrow, but that was unacceptable. So, off we went. As we began to pay tolls, it became clear that he’d cashed 15 euros and not 150, and after paying all the tolls, we had 5 coloń left. I suppose we were lucky that we didn’t have to spend the night in the car parked at a toll barrier. He drove in what I considered a reckless manner, and I asked him to drive more cautiously, but he would do that only while I complained about his driving and offered suggestions (perhaps turn your brights on when there’s no other traffic, for instance, and don’t drive so fast that the car bounces out of potholes).
Upon arrival in Monte Verde, after 9 p.m., we headed to the terrific restaurant where I always dine, but whose name I don’t recall. When it came time to pay, Gabriel took out his wallet and couldn’t find his only credit card. He has only ever had one, he said, and never considered it a matter of safety to get a second. He considered it my fault that he’d lost it, because I’d made him flustered. He didn’t once think about what would have happened were he alone in the jungle with no money and no credit card, nor think that the lesson to learn was to acquire a backup card. Not even now! When I inquired, he shrugged his shoulders.
Gabriel exercised similar judgement in Playa Lagartillo while swimming alone in the ocean during times when no humans were on the beach and heading out one hundred meters so he could swim near the pelicans, about which he was writing a reflection paper for one of his Masonic lodges back in Paris. I said nothing other than, “make sure you leave the car keys in the house and your phone (I’d dropped mine in the sea on the first evening and it ceased functioning) with your things on the beach, so I can return to civilization, should something happen. We didn’t converse much in Costa Rica, nor when we returned to the U.S. He was disappointed that I didn’t turn up in Paris during the summer. I invited him to Germany, where I spent July, but it was on the Polish border and too far to drive, he said. Instead, he walked the Jacob’s Path to Santiago da Compostela for two weeks, during which it seems he gained insight into our ‘relationship’, and realized this American woman was just a fascinating, pandemic ‘adventure’, as the French call them.
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