By Lynn Strough
All that glitters is not gold. This week’s installment of Lynn Strough’s Travelynn Tales adds credence to the adage, ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ Many other adages also apply. Anyway you say it/slice it: wanderers, beware.
[Names and exact locations have been changed. Also, this story does not include a prince or a glass slipper — but it does feature a fairy godmother, thank goodness.]
As I sat before the cold, dark fireplace in a dank, dark cave shoveling ashes, all around me there were castles. I thought to myself, why does this seem familiar?
During many months of travel, nearly all of the people I’d met had been amazing, nice, kind and generous. As with all aspects of life, however, there are exceptions — and forewarned is forearmed. If you’re going to hit the road, you should know the good, the bad and the ugly of long-term travel.
Oh, it began innocuously enough. I met a friendly woman — we’ll call her Astrid — at the start of my travels, somewhere in the Pacific. She had stopped by my seaside table to chat, then invited me to meet her for dinner. We had a delightful time — she was charming, fun, funny, intelligent and seemed very, very nice. We went hiking together the next day — again, a lovely time.
So when she invited me to visit her at her other home several months later as I passed through Europe, I happily agreed.
Red flag #1. True, it was a bit odd that she wanted me to come for a whole month — we barely knew each other. But you know how sometimes you think you hit it off with a person? I was oblivious to the warning signs. Astrid had said she’d have some work to do — she’s self-employed — and that I’d have time to myself. Besides, she had many things planned for us to do together — we’d go see chateaux in the area, some prehistoric sites and more. It was something I really looked forward to.
The day arrived. Astrid met my train in a town south of Paris and immediately informed me that there’d been a change of plans — instead of staying with her in the “beautiful little hobbit house” she’d described (a historic troglodyte), I would live in a tiny, garret studio apartment at the top of several flights of narrow stairs. Fifty steps, to be precise. It was a former maid’s quarters, with a minuscule shower in the corner of the kitchen area and a toilet in a locked closet across the landing. It was small, old, a bit shabby and very, very hot (top floor, no AC during one of the hottest summers on record), but I was actually thrilled to have a space to myself. (I didn’t mind the 50 steps, even when Astrid asked me to clean them after admitting that it was her turn.)
Red flag #2. My hostess presented her expectations, provided me lots of cleaning supplies and let it be known that when my time there was over — indeed, the day before I left — I was to thoroughly clean the place as she was going to give a realtor the key to show the place for sale.
No problem. It was the least I could do.
Ah, but there was more. After cleaning, I was to shop and cook her dinner when she came home around 11 pm. Again, I was happy to help, although I’m not the greatest cook.
Red flag #3. So, the first day, we stopped for coffee and croissant — and Astrid asked me to pay for both orders. A minor breach of etiquette, but not a deal-breaker. She invited me to join her at a neighborhood party that night over by her other flat, where she lived. It was about a 12-minute walk to her flat from my garret.
Immediately, she put me to work chopping and peeling for the pot luck. It was a beautiful night, with picnic tables set up all along the street. She left me on my own the whole evening so she could schmooze with the neighbors, but that was fine. I’m independent and meet people easily, and a few people spoke English.
Red flag #4. Long after dark — the party ended at midnight — Astrid sent me back to my garret, alone. It was my first night walking in a new, unfamiliar city, where I don’t speak the language. This proved to be a pattern. Many times after errands, she’d take me to her flat rather than where I was staying, and she’d insist that I walk to my garret. She couldn’t be bothered to drop me off on her way home, even though it took only an extra few minutes.
On the second day of my visit, I met Astrid for a coffee and croissant — and paid again. I’m happy to treat once in a while but can’t really afford to do it every time. At least my dinner last night was free at the block party. Well… Astrid had told me to buy two bottles of wine for my contribution.
Astrid next suggested that I check out touring a chateau on my own because she had other things to do. The tours were pricey, but I guessed with my accommodations covered I could afford to splurge on one. She’d said there were five other castles she would take me to on different days. Again and again, she seduced me with tales of the outings she had planned for us. Castle tours. Yoga. Day trips. These never happened.
Red flag #5. She informed me that she was famous but when I googled her, I found little to substantiate her sense of self-importance. But she had plans for my future — I was to come back to her other country to live with her when I was done with my travels and write my book there. Then she told me exactly how to write my book — in English and French — and how she would publish it and I’d give her a percentage. Only a few days in and this little sojourn had already begun to sour — and yet it was just the beginning.
My dear hostess next informed me that she had an open house scheduled in about a week for her historic house, the hobbit house/troglodyte. The open house would run from 8 am until 10 pm — for a week — and she had a few things to do to get it ready. She would like my help. Sure, I’m happy to help.
We ran some errands, including to the flower market — two beautiful blocks crammed with booths of petals and plants — and she picked out about a dozen big pots for her historic house’s garden. These were big pots. Huge. And she drove a teeny-tiny vintage car.
“You’ll have to have the tree between your legs,” she told me. “I usually have things in the front seat, but you’re there now.”
Red flag #6. And so began yet another pattern — reminding me how much I was inconveniencing her. After each reminder, she’d laugh as though she was joking.
When we finally visited the house where we were originally to have stayed, I saw why we weren’t there — the place was a total disaster. She hadn’t told me what a mess it was — thank God we weren’t staying there. The house is 400 years old, although newer parts have been added. But it’s been vacant for years except for squatters. Three weeks to get it ready was ambitious. What had she done in the three weeks she’d been there before I arrived?
Astrid showed me around the two courtyards, the storage cave loaded with tons of junk, the tiny kitchen with a table and small counter covered with dishes, a two-burner gas stove, no fridge, a shower filled with more stored stuff, an old-fashioned dining room crammed with old fashioned furniture — an armoire, a table and chairs, a buffet — all surfaces covered with knickknacks.
Everywhere, inside and out, there were Buddha statues, carved suns and moons, a basket shaped like a rabbit here, a plastic squirrel there, fake flowers, rusted irons and tons more toppled from various places. The house was full of dirt, mouse droppings, spiders and spider webs and had no indoor toilet, just a composting outhouse out back.
The main part was a rectangular cave room with arched ceiling, gray stone, dark and cold, holding two sofas covered with white sheets, a few tables, a crate for wine and a large fireplace. Jars turned into candle holders squatted everywhere, as there is no electricity.
Thirty moss-covered cement stairs led up to the garden, which was overgrown and also full of junk. Plastic crates full of old rusty iron hinges, tools and unidentifiable objects, broken clay pots, bags of dirt, rotting boards, dirty white plastic lawn furniture, you name it, you might find it there.
We ate cheese, bread and fruit for lunch, washed down with a bottle of red wine, (a nice thing about a French lunch), then worked until after dark at 9 pm. She put me to work snipping a pile of branches into foot long twigs for kindling. It was a huge pile, but I sat on an old plastic lawn chair out in the yard and it was kind of meditative.
I’d barely made a dent, when she gave me some other tasks to accomplish, like hauling the heavy, old, rusted iron junk and rotting rusty-nail-studded wood planks down the stairs from the overgrown backyard.
Red flag #7. In fact, she gave me a whole list…
I set to work next, scraping the moss off the steps — it actually looked rather pretty, but she said it gets slippery when wet and is dangerous, which I understand. I scraped and scraped and scraped, both the top and the sides of all 30 steps, the soft moss falling off in clumps as the metal edge cut underneath, and I swept the steps clear as well.
Then another list appeared. And then another, before I could complete even the first list.
What was she doing while I was lugging heavy junk down stairs, snipping kindling, washing dozens upon dozens of soot-coated candle holders, and cleaning mouse droppings and spider webs out of the attic for the next several days?
“I’m deciding what to keep and what to get rid of,” she told me. “That’s work only I can do, so I’m giving you the other tasks.”
It’s my nature — I give people the benefit of the doubt. Too, she kept saying the next day or so we’d go see the castles, the ancient towns, the historic sites. However, one day ran into another, working from dawn until dusk, until without electricity we couldn’t see to work anymore, with no visits even to the two towns where we worked and slept.
We did end the day with a glass of wine, in front of a roaring fire in the cave, built with kindling I’d cut, in the fireplace I’d swept clean, which was at least something. Then the next day, it was back to work.
She provided lunch — hearty meals like vegetarian sausage with lentils; however when she served it, she gave her young female cousin, whom she paid to come help plant flowers for a day, a whole sausage, and gave me half, saying, “That’s enough for you, don’t you think?” And when she poured me wine, she said I was costing her too much.
When Astrid had a friend over, she actually told this woman, in front of me, that she’d tricked me into coming. “I didn’t tell Lynn about all of the hard labor she’d be doing or I knew she wouldn’t come,” and she laughed, like it was a good joke.
Finally, the light bulb went on. Not that I hadn’t seen a few glimmers about five days into my two-week stay. We’re only taken advantage of when we allow it, so I claim full responsibility for staying this long. But in my defense, I’d already purchased my non-refundable train ticket to my non-negotiable next location, my first house-sitting job. So I was kind of stuck. And she had promised we’d see castles…
I asked Astrid when exactly were we going to see these castles, and she said that I should work a couple more days to finish getting things ready for her open house, and she’d give me a day off. She also said she wanted me to work at her open house, giving tours, keeping the candles lit, and selling her art while she left, as she had other things to do. I pointed out that anyone likely to visit would speak French and I do not, not to mention that they would be coming to see her. This didn’t seem to matter, and I saw the writing on the wall. There would be no sightseeing for me, only two weeks of hard labor for no pay.
“I’m happy to help you some,” I said, “but I need a little time for my own pursuits as well.”
And then her true colors burst forth.“What?! You didn’t think I was going to let you stay for free, did you?!” she screeched.
Here was a side to her I hadn’t seen, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I tried to reason with her — I thought she’d invited me as a friend, not as slave labor (I think I actually said an unpaid employee, to be a little less blunt), and she said that I was her Woofer.* I didn’t point out that woofing was four hours a day, five days a week, not 12 hours a day, seven days a week with no skill being taught, just hard labor, as by this point she was lecturing me in a very angry voice. It brought me to tears, and I have to admit, I took the coward’s way out, or maybe the smart way, as her behavior at this point was a little erratic and scary.
She said the contrails in the sky aren’t jet fuel, but poisons being spread on our food supply to make us all sick to control population growth and cause a need for more cancer drugs to fund the pharmaceutical industry. That ground-up microchips are being put in our food and soda to track us. Aliens live among us disguised as humans, and our government has traded things for technology secrets.
Maybe she’s right about all of her conspiracy theories — who am I to say — but in the absence of concrete evidence, her assertions had me a little concerned.
I’d had a message that day from a true fairy godmother, a dear friend, who, when she heard about my plight, told me to get out of there immediately and she’d cover a room for me in a nearby city until it was time for me to head to my house-sitting job in nine days.
There are Travel Angels out there who are life’s blessings, and there are tricksters who would put on a smiling face, and then take as much advantage of you as you allow them to.
I was finished allowing.
This situation brought to mind an amalgam of fairy tales: where someone baits you with something sweet — the witch in disguise in Snow White with a poison apple, the witch in Hansel and Gretel with the candy house waiting to shove you in the oven, and the wicked stepmother in Cinderella who makes you sweep the ashes, all wrapped up into one.
To delicately extricate me from this potentially explosive situation, I told Astrid I had some personal things to attend to and needed a day to do so, which was true. I just didn’t elaborate. “All right, I’ll give you one day off to go see some castles, and I’ll tell the tour bus driver where to drop you off afterward so you can walk back here and get back to work.”
The next morning, I wrote her a message telling her that I wouldn’t be going on a castle tour, I wasn’t feeling well, (very true, since I had been breathing ashes and mouse dung, and had conked my head so hard on the low overhead beams while sitting up from cleaning the mouse droppings under the eaves, that it ended up hurting for two months!) and that I had some other things I needed to do. I didn’t tell her that the other things were to find a cheap hotel, pack my bags, and get out of there as fast as possible.
It was peak tourist season, and at first it looked like there were very few affordable accommodations, and I didn’t want to spend much as I was being gifted by a saintly benefactress, my very own fairy godmother. I walked to the tourist office, where they did some calling around and found me a room in a quaint, old, one-star hotel, which even had a little kitchen area so I could cook my meals instead of eating out.
Once I was settled in, I wrote Astrid that although I appreciated her hospitality and was happy to have helped her out, I had other things I needed to do — and with that, I moved out of her flat. She wrote back that it was too bad I was unable to talk about my “wishes, desires, and needs” and that I “probably need to grow up a little bit more to allow you to talk about things that upset you…”
*Woofing is common in several countries — you work on an organic farm in exchange for room and board, and learn a skill.
About Lynn Strough
Lynn is a 50+ wandering spirit whose incarnations in this life have included graphic designer, children’s book author and illustrator, public speaker, teacher, fine art painter, wine educator in the Napa Valley, and world traveler. Through current circumstances, she has found herself single, without a job or a home, and poised for a great adventure.
“You could consider me homeless and unemployed, but I prefer nomad and self-employed, as I pack up my skills and head off with my small backpack and even smaller savings to circumnavigate the globe (or at least go until the money runs out). Get ready to tag along for the ride…starting now!”
All images copyright Lynn Strough and Travelynn Tales
Reprinted with permission