Thursday, March 1, 2012

Panic Button

I had one moment of pure panic during the two months I lived in France.  There were smaller instances of concern, like when I pressed the wrong button and set my host family's washing machine on some kind of infinite rinse cycle and when I learned that the bulk of my internship would be answering phones to speak to nervous French students.  Though embarrassing and stressful, they were things I could deal with.  My panic moment was minor in retrospect, but at the time I freaked out and had no idea what to do.  Here's the story.

I had a long weekend in June, so I went to visit my friend Hope who was living in Roanne, a tiny town outside of Lyon.  She was an intern at Troisgros, which she wrote about here.  We had a very relaxing, very French weekend.  Hope introduced me to comté and Sancerre.  We found a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed local bar.  It was a great weekend, especially since I hadn't seen Hope in six months.

Our picnic of cheese, bread, cherries and wine - amazing!
Side note: if you work at a Pirates of the Caribbean-themed bar,
don't give customers attitude when they order "Le Kraken" off your drink menu.
On Sunday morning, Hope walked me to the train station before she went to work.  I had an hour or so before my train left and I needed to buy more minutes for my pay-as-you-go cell phone, so I set off to find an ATM.  Because it was a Sunday, nearly everything was closed and there were few people around.  There was an ATM tucked into a square nook next to a bank on a quiet, business-lined street not far from the station.  I put in my debit card and a screen popped up asking me to select my language.  I tapped the screen for "English" and... nothing happened.  

The screen had frozen.  I waited, hoping it was a minor glitch.  Nothing.  I hit "cancel" once, then again, then over and over.  What was I going to do?  I'd only brought one debit card with the logic that I was only using the account with the lowest fees and I wouldn't run the risk of losing my others.  If I couldn't get the card out, I wouldn't be able to get more cash.  I had a credit card, but that wouldn't help me buy a 50 euro cent espresso at the cafeteria or a two euro pastry in a café.  Plus I was leaving to travel with Eric in less than a month.  That wouldn't be enough time for me to order a new ATM card and have it mailed to France!  Cancel, cancel, cancel...

Besides, my train left in an hour.  What if I had to go, then the machine spat my card out?  It was doubtful that the bank could or would trace me, since they probably wouldn't bother to make international calls about some American's debit card.  Or what if some French hoodlum took my card?  By the time I got back to Nantes to check my bank balance, some unscrupulous youth could have bought more than 400 euros worth of fancy cigarettes or expensive wine!

Or 400 euros of dog-shaped meringues!
As I continued hitting buttons on the ATM, wishing that French banks were open on Sundays so that I could ask for help, I just wanted to call my mom.  She's helped me in just about every situation, from choosing a college to telling me the proper amount of time to hard boil eggs.  Even if she couldn't make my ATM card magically fly out of the machine, she'd be able to calm me down.  I began leaning out of the ATM nook, looking for any innocent passersby who could help me crack the machine open and then explain to the policiers why it was a necessary crime.

Finally, after I had lost control of my whimpering and was near tears, a new screen popped up on the ATM.  "Would you like to cancel this transaction?" it asked.  YES.  GOOD LORD YES.  With the speed of a sleeping tortoise, the machine returned my card.  Apparently the session had timed out due to inactivity (?!!?!).  I was thrilled and didn't bother trying to get more cash.  I just walked as quickly as I could to the train station where I sat until I stopped shaking.

Lessons learned: bring multiple ATM cards while traveling.  Wear waterproof mascara.  Learn polite, explanatory, crime-related vocabulary, just in case.

Have you run into any problems while traveling?
How have you dealt with panic moments?


  1. I remember you tell me this story when we went to work the next day! lol I really enjoy reading your blogs; they're well written and funny!! Have fun in Asia and I hope you're doing well. Eileen

    1. I'm happy you remember that! I do miss eating lunch with you and Lauren in that cafeteria and getting Kinder chocolates. And thank you - I'm really glad you like the blogs! I hope you're doing well, too!