Bad? You want to know from bad? Well, I could start with the hotel in the (what else but?) teeming Oriental metropolis of Datong that was so decrepit the Chinese themselves were about to put it out of commission, so legendary in its lassitude that an Australian couple I met in Shanghai gave me a consoling Last Mile look when I told them it was my destination, so bizarre that I ended up sharing my room with a large lizard of indeterminate origin that seemed to feel he had as much right to the room as I did.
Or I could talk about losing my luggage in Budapest, about the seemingly endless false-alarm trips to the airport after some functionary had assured me over the phone that they'd found what I'd lost. Out I'd go, eager as you please, only to be shown some ridiculous-looking item that had somehow gotten my name attached to it. "This is your bag," the official would say with absolute confidence in heavily accented English. "No, it's not," I would insist. "This is your name, this is your bag," came the inflexible reply.
After much wrangling, I was taken to the Luggage Graveyard, a kind of dead-letter office for suitcases that had permanently lost their way, a travelers' nightmare from which you never wake up. Still, no suitcase. Yes, it finally showed up, but only after I'd bought enough Made-in-Turkey underwear (the only kind you can get in Budapest, apparently) to last a lifetime.
But my favorite horror story is my favorite not only because it happened on my first time out of the country, but because its ending was so unexpectedly happy that it made me feel that travelers abroad must truly be under the special protection of a rather benevolent god.
It happened in France, the ancestral home of American travel woes. I was in Cannes, a guest of the film festival, thank you very much. Young as I was, I tried to sneak a graduate-school buddy of mine into my room so he could crash on the floor. We were found out, and I was quite literally thrown out. Having nothing to do and nowhere to stay, I decided to cut Cannes short and take the train to Paris.
Not a bad idea, you say, except that: a) I spoke no French and had absolutely no knowledge of the city; b) had no hotel reservation; c) didn't know that the train would be arriving at 2 in the morning; and, most important, d) had no idea that my visit would coincide with a major French holiday that drew provincials to the city like a magnet.
The upshot was that the first word I learned in French was complet, which means full, which was what every hotel concierge in the vicinity of the train station would tell me as I futilely dragged my increasingly heavy backpack (did I say I was young?) from door to door. As the night grew later and later, I kept thinking of all the French horror stories I'd heard from nominally well-meaning friends, about how this was a race that lived for an opportunity to literally spit on us Yanks.
Finally, I remembered that a friend had given me the address of a crash pad somewhere around Paris, but I had no idea where it was or how to get there. I feebly tried flagging some cabs, but one whiff of my nonexistent French sent them fleeing. Then, about 3 a.m., just as I was about to break down and cry, a cab I hadn't even signaled for pulls up, the driver rolls down the window, leans out and says, in excellent English, "Do you need some help?" Did I ever.
The man, it turned out, had spent some time in New York and had a fondness for Americans. Not only did he take me to the crash pad, which turned out to be way out in the suburb of Neuilly, but, with the meter off, he took me on a small tour of Paris by night, past the Arc, the Champs, the bridges, the illuminated Eiffel Tower and more. If travel nightmares can end like this, I said to myself, I'll have to get out of the country more often. And I have. Kenneth Turan is film critic for Gentlemen's Quarterly.