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Turning Back the Clock on a Few Odd Purchases

April 30, 1989|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a travel writer who lives in Canoga Park

Occasionally in our travels, we make mistakes.

We take 36 shots of the inside of a lens cap.

We glance away from the scenery and find ourselves in the middle of a completely strange tour group.

We put into our suitcases bottles of perfume with caps that are on almost tight enough.

We forget what the car we rented looks like or where we parked it.

We can't recall the name of the hotel we called for reservations.

In the course of an introduction, we forget our spouse's name.

Normal little mistakes.

It's the bigger ones that need special consideration, that make us stand back, shudder and gasp, "What was I thinking?"

So many of those involve the same basic error--unwise purchases--that they're worth special consideration.

When I was a young man I went to San Francisco for a weekend.

When you go on a trip, you bring back presents for those at home. It's a tradition. So I bought my 4-year-old nephew a set of finger paints.

Good old uncle Bob, right?

Wrong. My sister was very upset. She told me that if I ever did "a thing like that" again, she would cease speaking to me forever. Since we had been adversaries all of our lives, I thought she probably meant it. I swore I'd be good. No more messy toys.

The following year I went to New York. I brought the same nephew a 50-shot water rifle. After all, how much of a mess can a kid make with plain water?

Shudder, gasp. "What was I thinking?"

My nephew is 38 years old now. That's a lot of silence.

Large Cuckoo Clock

In Geneva one year a couple in our tour group, Byron Stocks (not his real name) and his wife, Lucille, fell in love with a cuckoo clock.

It had all sorts of hardwood carvings encircling a dark wood Swiss chalet from which a cuckoo emerged hourly. It had chimes and pine cone-shaped solid brass counter-weights, weighed 43 pounds and was three feet tall.

Because the price the merchant wanted for crating and shipping seemed excessive, the Stocks got a bit huffy and said they'd just take it with them on their bus, whereupon the bus driver got a bit huffy, claimed he had been hired to transport people and their luggage, not cuckoo clocks, and refused to touch the thing.

By the end of the tour Byron referred to it as the "albatross clock." When Byron got caught by Lucille as he was about to drop it off the car ferry on the way back to the United Kingdom, the result was almost an instant divorce.

The Stocks did not take the same aircraft back to the States as the rest of us. The airline could not quite accept the uncrated albatross as a carry-on.

In a later communication Lucille mentioned that although it seemed to awaken Byron every hour on the hour, the clock was stunning in her living room.

She had, however, been forced into a compromise. Her husband had made her agree to let a clockmaker inactivate the quarter-hour chime.

Dollars and Zlotys

Money can also be a dangerous bargain. On our first trip behind the Iron Curtain our tour guide advised us that the exchange rate on the Polish zloty would be 250 to the dollar.

When the Polish state guide got on the bus at the border, he told us that the Polish government had given him special permission to offer tourists 600 zlotys to the dollar.

He also advised that it might be unwise to buy zlotys on the black market. The word "gulag" appeared a time or two in the advisory.

We all bought zlotys in small amounts from the Polish guide.

Outside our hotel in Warsaw, some of us were approached by Peter Lorre types and offered first 800, then 900 and finally 1,000 zlotys for an American dollar.

The next morning, one of our number confided, somewhat smugly, that he had become wealthy. The previous evening he had bought half a million zlotys for only 400 dollars.

"That's about 1,200 to the dollar. Pretty good, huh?"

There was a long silence at the breakfast table till someone who had been to Poland before said, "It'll be interesting to see what you buy with them."

"Well," said the half-millionaire, "I saw some crystal in a shop window at one-twentieth the price it was in West Berlin."

Warsaw Shop Windows

In Warsaw, what one sees in shop windows is seldom what one can buy inside. He was told he could order the crystal and would be informed as to when he could pick it up.

It would not be long, perhaps only a year or two. Not really so bad considering that the average waiting period for a new car in Poland is seven years.

The day before we were to leave, the half-millionaire announced that he was going take his losses, accept the government rate and buy dollars with his zloty fortune.

"From whom?" asked our tour guide. "The Polish government does not buy zlotys. It only sells zlotys."

In Venice, off St. Mark's Square, there's a place the tour directors refer to as the glass factory. Each day, numerous tour groups sit down in front of a glass furnace and get a demonstration of glass blowing. You tend to get a little overheated, but it's worth it.

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