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Going Broke

Finding yourself far from home with no money can be a discomfiting, frightening experience, but it has its upsides

Author Chris Wright Illustration Michael Byers

travelessayA perpetually hard-up friend of mine—we’ll call him Bernard—recently spent the night at a lavish high-rise hotel in Berlin. Due to his being a travel writer, he’d managed to get the room comped, which was just as well, as he had about three euros to his name. “They had this beautiful bar at the top, with a telescope so you could look out over the city,” he told me. “I was up there stuffing free pretzels into my mouth, scanning the horizon for a KFC.”

There’s something comical about this scenario—the collision of poverty and luxury—but Bernard wasn’t laughing at the time. Understandably, he did not relish the prospect of being far from home, “stone-cold broke.” There was at least some comfort in the fact that he had access to unlimited pretzels, downy bathrobes and an order of spicy chicken wings. For this pauper, there would be no baleful headline in Die Welt: “Emaciated Corpse Found on Park Bench.”

I’ve had my share of cash-strapped vacations, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, under the right circumstances, they can be more than merely survivable. If nothing else, they heighten your appreciation of a city’s simpler pleasures. Even Bernard, who’d been focused exclusively on ramping up his body-fat index, admits that those pretzels he crammed into his system were “the best I’ve ever had.”

Bernard’s enjoyment, of course, rested less on the quality of the snack than on the circumstances—specifically, the tension between expectation and fulfillment, which also plays a part in how we respond to the things we see and do when we travel. For example, while visiting the Louvre a while back, I stared dully at the Mona Lisa, trying to force myself to feel something; later, in an outlying Paris suburb, I wandered into an old courtyard and came across a dried-up ornamental fountain, its once-burbling fish in the arms of a boy with a cracked and crumbling smile. Tellingly, that’s the smile that stayed with me.

I spent a lot of time wandering around on that trip, largely because I couldn’t afford to do anything else. I’d been waiting on some money to be wired into my account, so my roaming was punctuated by frequent exploratory stops at the city’s ATMs, whose screens sneeringly reminded me that I was without funds. But then, out of the blue: funds! I quickly invested in a baguette and a lump of the stinkiest cheese I could find, then made my way to the nearest park to eat them. I don’t believe my satisfaction could have been any greater if I’d been at Mon Vieil Ami, tucking into baby quail confit served on a bed of albino truffles.

These days, I do occasionally find myself in restaurants like this, and I’m always mystified by the preponderance of glum expressions around me; it’s the same in five-star hotels and fashion retailers where buying a T-shirt requires input from your accountant. Maybe people are silently calculating how much money all this is costing them, or—more likely—they simply take it for granted that they should eat, sleep and dress in this manner. Their expectations are high, so their sense of fulfillment is low—an inevitable inversion that tells us much about how the wealthy behave.

Which brings us back to that blessed Parisian lunch. The food I ate that day was all the more wonderful, of course, due to the fact that I had been facing the prospect of starvation, but there was more to the experience than this. The park was small and pretty, but not remarkable enough to draw in the tourists. I was surrounded by locals, ordinary people enjoying a pleasantly warm afternoon. Nobody tried to sell me a miniature Eiffel Tower. Nobody really paid me any attention at all. I was just a hungry guy having a bite to eat, along with a bunch of people doing the same thing. As I stood up to leave, I caught the eye of a middle-age man reading the newspaper, and he nodded. It wasn’t a big nod, and it wasn’t accompanied by a smile, but it was something. You don’t get experiences like that consuming overpriced croque monsieurs at quintessentially Parisian cafés.

As a rule, travelers interested in encountering the local population should avoid the places the guidebooks identify as “a local favorite” (they will be filled with people like you). Instead, find a bar that offers free snacks and cheap lager. Your fellow drinkers might not be the most non-threatening people you’ve ever met, and they almost certainly won’t break into a spontaneous rendition of a local folk song, but they’ll be real. Also, by the time the 15th bowl of snacks arrives, the language barrier will have ceased to matter. I once made a bunch of friends in a Stockholm bar, despite the fact that my only means of communication was the ability to shout the word “Skål!”

That was a great night, more so since I’d just stumbled into it, which raises another point: Being broke makes it difficult to plan ahead, and this in turn can lead to moments of extraordinary serendipity. Among my most cherished memories is the time, hitchhiking through northern England, I got stuck in a terrible snowstorm and was rescued by a lovely couple who took me in, fed me and insisted on a post-prandial sing-along (they were hippies).

Even better was the night a few friends and I shared a carafe of wine and a basket of breadsticks—all we could afford—in an Algarve cafe. A waiter, observing this rabble of sippers and nibblers, took pity on us and invited us to stick around for an after-hours drink with the staff, which involved a lot of gesturing, clinking of glasses and aimless laughter. “Saúde!”

I told Bernard this story, and he snorted with derision: “Pah!” Only someone who had never experienced real poverty, he said, would romanticize it like that. At least, I think that’s what he was saying. It was hard to tell, given that he was speaking through a mouthful of the ham-and-cheese sandwich he’d just taken off my plate.

Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright once ran out of money during a road trip from Boston to San Francisco. That was no fun.

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