Friday, August 19, 2016

This just in from the Road to Hell

“The road to Hell,” my late mother Huena used to say, “is paved with the stones of good intentions.”

In other words, you can’t get to heaven just by thinking good deeds; you actually have to do them.

At least I think that's what she meant. My mom was a fountain of behavioral advice like that. A human Old Faithful, Huena was.  And most of the time, even though my brothers and sisters and I heard her jewels of wisdom, we—or maybe just I—never gave them much thought.

But 14 days ago, for about six hours—and I’m not exaggerating one little bit—six hours—I mused, reflected, mused again and then thought some more about what Huena meant when she said “the road to hell is paved with the stones of good intentions.”

I analyzed the logic and wondered about how it seemed to contradict the way Huena lived because she was such a forgiving person. At one point in my deliberations I actually composed a little song called “The Road To Hell,” and if you ever come visit I’ll sing it for you. 

Weird? Maybe.

But here's why I’m going on about this.

For the past three weeks, my wife Helena and I have been travelling around Poland. If you zoom in real close on a Google-Map of that country, you’ll see that up along the northwestern Baltic Coast, a tiny 35-km spit of land sticks out into the sea. There are a few towns on it, and we spent four days in one of them, called Kuznica.

One morning, we rented and then pedalled bicycles 24 clicks east from Kuznica to where the strip of land ends; and there, on the very tip, sits an old fishing village turned tourist magnet named “Hel.”

What a gift from Heaven going to Hel was. When I first learned  it was on our agenda, I told my brother Ed, “We're going to Hel! The jokes will write themselves!” (Of course they didn’t. They never do.) It would have been okay if they translated the name, too. “Hel” in  English is “Helium.” The locals would have had really high-pitched voices.
FARE WAY TO HADES: What route # would you expect?

But I like Hel more.  Because it gave me an excuse to write this:

Three lessons I learned on the Road to Hel.

·         * At 11:00 a.m., with my shiny 18-speed rental at hand, I confidently hoisted my left leg up and over the rear fender and I straddled what I thought would be a bike seat.  It turned out to be a triangular foam-and-plastic weapon of ass-destruction that subjected my backside to a foreign object the likes of which it hadn’t accommodated since maybe 1978. I am not a bicyclist. My butt is anything but triangular.  So why was I surprised, when four hours later, I found myself so chafed and sore? Indeed, at that point I was trying to ease the strain on my butt cheeks by shifting all my weight from one cheek to the other, every couple of pedals. Of course this was a completely unsustainable solution. The only thing that happened was my other body parts--my knees, elbows and shoulders--got crosser at me than they already were. Everything hurt. Along with the stones of good intentions, the road in question is paved with cheap attempts to use minor tweaks to solve major problems. Plus you can’t fool your body and you can’t fake sweat.

·         * Remember I mentioned that while we pedaled I wrote a song? It’s true. "It's called "The Road to Hell is Paved With The Stones of Good Intentions." Three complete verses and a chorus. 
       It starts like this:

       "I'm gonna quit drinkin' as soon as I'm home;
       I drink too much whisky whenever I roam.
       I'll hop on the  wagon, and that's where I'll stay;
           I'm gonna quit drinkin' come next Saturday."

I started working on the song early in the trip and during hours five and six, I was belting it out as loudly as I could, probably to drown out the wails 
from my rebelling body parts.

Singing actually made the pain go away.

      That said, next morning, I was sorer than ever.  And really glad I had packed a tube of my go-to topical pain reliever Voltaren—a German masseuse in a tube. 

The singing might have helped, but as the late oncologist Doctor Robert Buckman once wrote: “Laughter is not the best medicine. Medicine is the best medicine. Laughter is the second-best medicine.”

·         * Finally, as I mentioned earlier, the first part of the ride was a breeze. The bike hummed along seamlessly and the road was smooth. By late afternoon though, with every cell in my body rebelling and with me gasping a silent prayer of thanks any time the road showed the slightest sign of being downhill, when I finally reached the rental joint, I rolled in, let the bike fall to to the left, and learned, then and there, as has every soul who has done time or gone through rehab or survived a lousy relationship, getting out of Hel is a lot harder than getting in.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Peter Frances and Pope Francis Vs A Global Currency Crisis

My wife Helena and I are travelling in Europe. We spent four days in Prague and now we’re in Krakow, Poland.

GO ABROAD AND MULTIPLY: How else can you learn local currency values? 

It’s Tuesday following Pope Francis’ visit to this former Polish capital and although he’s gone back to The Vatican, little armies of Catholic teenagers from around the world still parade through the narrow streets. 

Many sport red and blue Catholic World Youth sashes but they’re more easily identified by the spring in their steps, their cheerful expressions and evangelical Catholic zeal. 

By my reckoning, I wager that come next Mother’s Day, a lot of multi-ethnic babies will be popping out all over the planet.

But today, I have more immediate concerns and by that I mean my very own international currency crisis. It has already exacted a painful toll and things are about to get much worse before they improve.

Let me explain.

Before leaving Toronto six days ago, Helena and I consulted several neighbours and two TD Canada Trust staffers.  

“How,” we asked them, “should we deal with currency when we’re in Europe?”  

They gave us the same answer Mr. McGuire had for Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate: “Plastic.”

We should simply use our Amex, debit cards and ATMs.  That way we would not ruin our vacation fretting exchange rates. I believe one of them actually said, “Easy peasie.”

My response? Difficult, emotionally draining, and complicated enough to make a grown man cry, more like.

Just 72 hours ago, I stood at the check-out counter of a Prague delicatessen with my right hand outstretched. On my open palm sat a small mountain of crumpled-up bills, about seven or eight coins of various shapes, colours and ethnicities, and—as if to giftwrap my pitiful state of addled-brainedness—a wad of pocket lint.

I had no idea how much any of it was worth. I was at the store clerk's mercy.

When we had arrived a few days earlier, we followed our neighbours’ advice. We located an ATM at the airport and confidently extracted 10,000 Czech Koronas, which we determined was just over $500 Canadian.

Riding the shuttle from the airport to town (the tickets for which we bought using a debit card) we did our financial homework. Take away two zeros, and 100 Koronas translates to five bucks, give or take.

For the next two days, using—variously—plastic and our 1,000-Korona bills, we had a splendid time, dining Bohemian-style on goulash and dumplings and roast duck and Czech beer and making wonderful jokes like “Hey! Czech out that statue,” to much laughter, much of it my my own.

 TO COIN A PHRASE: When it comes to global money, there's no common cents.
After each cash deal, I pocketed change but I only spent big ATM-issued bills. I never so much as glanced at any change I was given.

How uncool would it be to stop and pore over every little coin? 

Then I woke up Sunday morning.

After all our restaurant dining I thought that instead of eating out, I’d nip over to the local deli and buy breakfast fixings. We could dine in our rooms and wait for a murder.

(What I mean is, we were staying in a splendid 11-room, several-hundred-year-old apartment hotel called The Oasis. Our third-floor window opened out over a courtyard surrounded by balconies and shuttered windows. It looked like the set of an Italian murder mystery in which the writer hero sees somebody attack a beautiful nearly naked victim in an open window one storey down and just to the right from where I was sitting. Maybe my imagination is getting the better of me. But I digress.)

The deli was next to the hotel. It didn’t take long to find what I needed: A bit of smoked cheese; two yogurts, some freshly cut baklava and a slice of very European-looking black jerky something.
As I shopped, I considered the prices: 110-Korona this and 25-Korona that. All told it came to under 500 Koronas.

I got to the cashier and handed him my 1,000-K note.

“Any chance,” he says, “you got something smaller?” (A surprising number of Czechs speak English.)

I did.

I reached into my Levis and extracted that mittful of multi-coloured-and shaped money:  Czech and Canadian coins, several wrinkled-up bills, a TTC token, and lint.

I looked at the clerk. He understood perfectly.

He leaned in, flung the lint aside and extracted what I believe to be the exact price of my purchase.
I felt three and a half. And thought:“If you want to get rich quick, find out what country Peter’s visiting next, rush there, find out where he’s staying, and adjacent to that property, open up a convenience store, and wait.”

After I got back from the deli encounter, Helena and I did some currency drilling.

Her: “Say I have 10,000 Koronas and that’s like $50. What if we go to a restaurant and don’t want to spend more than $40 a person. What would that be?”

Me: Crickets

Her: “What about we knew something should cost 55 cents, how would we calculate that?”

Me: Tears of frustration.

Do you see where I’m going with this? It is in fact easy peasie to keep track of the huge bills, but once I’m down to the 50 cents’; the coins and other smaller currency—important everyday money—I’m completely out of my depth.
What’s worse is, the crisis has only just begun.

It’s our first full day in Poland. We’re here for two weeks.

When we arrived last night I picked up some Polish money from the ATM. We bought some shampoo afterwards so I have some change.

So right now, I have, in my pocket:

$57 in Canadian currency;

$150 American;

100 Euros;

50 Czech Koronas;

329 Polish Zlotes;

10 Polish Grozes, a.k.a., 10 pennies or so;

A subway token.

And lint.

I better go find some of those Catholic kids and get them to pray for me.