Cinderella Story, a Cautionary Tale
As I sat in front of a cold, dark fireplace, in a dank, dark cave shoveling ashes, while all around me there were castles, I thought to myself, why does this scenario seem so familiar?!
This is a cautionary tale. The name and exact locations have been changed, not to protect the guilty, but to protect me from the guilty, for telling the truth of my tale. The story does not include a prince or a glass slipper, but there is a fairy godmother involved. Also, please note that during many months of travel, almost all of the people I have met have been amazing, nice, kind, generous, and more. There are, however, a few exceptions, which I’m sure you’ll find anywhere, including at home, and I think you need to know both sides of long-term travel.
It started out innocuously enough, meeting a friendly woman, we’ll call her Astrid, in the beginning of my travels last year, somewhere in the Pacific. We were dining at the same restaurant and she stopped by my table to chat, invited me, if I came later through her town, to meet her for lunch. We ended up meeting for dinner and had a delightful time – she was charming, fun, funny, intelligent, and seemed very, very nice. I invited her to go hiking with me the next day, and again, we had a lovely time. So when she invited me to visit her several months later when I passed through Europe, as she spends summers there, I happily agreed.
It seemed a little odd that she wanted me to come for a whole month, since we barely knew each other, and as I had some other commitments, I suggested a 2 week stay instead. She’d said she would have some work to do, she’s self-employed, but that I’d have time to myself and she had many things planned to do together as well, to go see chateau in the area, some prehistoric sites, and more. It was something I really looked forward to. I even picked up some gifts for Astrid on my travels, a hand-made scarf in Thailand, some spices in Italy, and I gave her a small watercolor I’d painted.
When the time arrived, she met me at the train station, in a town south of Paris, but there’d been a change of plans – instead of staying with her in the “beautiful little hobbit house” she’d described, a historic troglodyte, she took me to a tiny garret studio apartment at the top of several flights of narrow stairs, a former maid’s quarters, she told me, with a minuscule shower in the corner of the kitchen area, and a toilet in a locked closet across the landing. It was small, old, a bit shabby, and very very hot (top floor, no AC and one of the hottest summers on record), but I was actually thrilled to have a space to myself. Privacy to sleep, shower & change is precious to me, especially after almost 2 weeks of couch surfing, and I didn’t mind the 50 steps, even when she said it was her turn to clean them, but she didn’t have time, and would I mind doing it.
Astrid also told me that she’d provide me with lots of cleaning supplies, and the day before I leave, I was to thoroughly clean the place, as she was going to give a realtor the key to show the place for sale. No problem, it was the least I could do. (Later she also told me that when I was done cleaning, I was to go shopping, and cook her dinner when she arrived home about 11pm, the night before I left on my early morning train, but again, as a friend, I was happy to help, although I admit I’m not the greatest cook…)
She suggested we stop for coffee and croissant, where she asked me to pay for both of us, and then invited me to join her at her neighborhood party that first night, over by her other flat, where she was living. (How many places did she own, I wondered, as I’d only known about 3, and she said 7). It was about a 12 minute walk from the place I was to stay to her flat.
She put me to work chopping and peeling for the pot luck, and it was a beautiful night, with picnic tables set up all along the street. She left me the whole evening on my own, so she could go schmooze with the neighbors, but that was fine, I’m independent & meet people easily, and a few people spoke English. Late when the party ended at midnight, long after dark, she said, “You don’t mind walking home alone do you?” What could I say? “Is it safe?” It was, after all, my first night in a new, unfamiliar city, where I don’t speak the language. This proved to be a pattern, as when we’d head back in the middle of the night from her other place, the one we were supposed to be staying at, she’d take me to her flat instead of where I was staying, and insist I walk, instead of dropping me off on the way, because it was a one-way street and it took an extra couple of minutes to drive. A few red flags?
She told me again and again about the several outings she had planned for us. She also told me several times that she’s very famous, although when I googled her, I found little to substantiate that. But I guessed I could excuse a little self-important behavior. Looking back, there were quite a few red flags already, I just didn’t see them clearly, and I had made a commitment to stay with her for 2 weeks…
The next morning, I met Astrid for a coffee and croissant, and paid again. I hoped this wasn’t a pattern, as I’m happy to treat once in a while, but can’t really afford to do it every time. At least my dinner last night was free at the block party. No, wait a minute, Astrid told me to buy 2 bottles of wine for my contribution. (I had asked what I could bring.)
She suggested I check out doing a chateau tour on my own, while she had other things to do. They were pricy, but I guessed with my accommodations covered I could afford to do one. She said there were 5 other castles she’d take me to on different days. But she didn’t have me book a tour. “I need to check my schedule first,” she said.
She also told me I should come back to her other country to live with her, when I was done with my travels, and write my book there. Then she started to tell me exactly how to write my book, in English and French, and how she would publish it and I’d give her a percentage. Uh oh…
She had an open house scheduled in about a week, she informed me, for her historic house, the hobbit house/troglodyte. The open house would run from 8am until 10pm for a week, and she had a few things to do to get it ready, and would like my help. Sure, I’m happy to help.
We ran some errands, including to the flower market, 2 beautiful blocks crammed with booths of petals & plants, and she picked out about a dozen big pots for her historic house’s garden. How would we get them there? She has a vintage teeny-tiny car! “You’ll have to have the tree between your legs,” she told me. “I usually have things in the front seat, but you’re there now.” This would be the first of several times she would remind me how I was inconveniencing her. But then she’d laugh, like she was joking. We stopped at a yoga studio where she asked me if I’d like to take a yoga class with her. Sure, sounds great! This too would be a pattern, carrots dangled of fun things to do, never fulfilled.
When we finally visited the house where we were originally to have stayed, I saw why we weren’t there – the place was a total disaster! OMG!! She hadn’t told me what a mess it was. Thank God we weren’t staying there! The house is 400 years old, although newer parts have been added. But it’s been vacant for years except for squatters. What was she thinking, scheduling an open house in a week?! And what had she done in the 3 weeks she’d been there before I arrived? It looked like nothing. Was she waiting for me to show up? I was so thankful I stayed in Italy longer & stopped in Paris. I’d have hated to spend a month here. She said we needed to get it ready in time for the open house, but God only knew how that would happen. Oh, well, not my problem. (Or so I thought!)
She showed me around – the 2 courtyards, the storage cave loaded with tons of junk, the tiny kitchen with a table & small counter covered with dishes, a 2-burner gas stove, no fridge, a shower filled with more stored stuff, an old fashioned dining room crammed with old fashioned furniture – an armoir, a table & chairs, a buffet, all surfaces covered with knick knacks. Everywhere, inside and out, Buddha statues, carved suns and moons, a basket shaped like a rabbit, a plastic squirrel, fake flowers, rusted irons and tons more toppled from various places. The house was full of dirt, mouse droppings, spiders and spider webs, and had no indoor toilet, just a composting outhouse out back.
The main part was a rectangular cave room with arched ceiling, gray stone, dark and cold, holding 2 sofas covered with white sheets, a few tables, a crate for wine and a large fireplace. Jars turned into candle holders squatted everywhere, as there is no electricity.
30 moss-covered cement stairs led up to the garden, which was overgrown and also full of junk. Plastic crates full of old rusty iron hinges, tools and unidentifiable objects, broken clay pots, bags of dirt, rotting boards, dirty white plastic lawn furniture, you name it, you might find it there.
We ate cheese, bread and fruit for lunch, washed down with a bottle of red wine, (a nice thing about a French lunch), then worked until after dark at 9pm. Of course, I’m happy to help a friend (or someone who purports to be a friend), and she put me to work snipping a pile of branches into foot long twigs for kindling. It was a huge pile, but I sat on an old plastic lawn chair, out in the yard, and it was kind of meditative.
I’d barely made a dent, when she gave me some other tasks to accomplish, like hauling the heavy old rusted iron junk and rotting rusty-nail studded wood planks down the stairs from the overgrown back yard.
In fact, she gave me a whole list…
I set to work next, scraping the moss off the steps – it actually looked rather pretty, but she said it gets slippery when wet and is dangerous, which I understand. I scraped and scraped and scraped, both the top and the sides of all 30 steps, the soft moss falling off in clumps as the metal edge cut underneath, and I swept the steps clear as well.
Then another list appeared…
and then another, before I could complete even the first list!
What was she doing while I was lugging heavy junk down stairs, snipping kindling, washing dozens upon dozens of soot-coated candle holders, and cleaning mouse droppings and spider webs out of the attic for the next several days?
“I’m deciding what to keep and what to get rid of,” she told me. “That’s work only I can do, so I’m giving you the other tasks.” Right.
But I gave her the benefit of the doubt, as she kept saying the next day or so we’d go see the castles, the ancient towns, the historic sites. One day ran into another, working from dawn until dusk, until without electricity we couldn’t see to work anymore, with no visits even to the two towns where we worked and slept.
We did end the day with a glass of wine, in front of a roaring fire in the cave, built with kindling I’d cut, in the fireplace I’d swept clean, which was at least something. Then the next day, it was back to work.
She provided lunch, hearty meals like vegetarian sausage with lentils, however when she served it, she gave her young female cousin, whom she paid to come help plant flowers for a day, a whole sausage, and gave me half, saying, “That’s enough for you, don’t you think?” And when she poured me wine, she said I was costing her too much!
And when Astrid had a friend over, she actually told this woman, in front of me, that she’d tricked me into coming! “I didn’t tell Lynn about all of the hard labor she’d be doing or I knew she wouldn’t come,” and she laughed, like it was a good joke. The light bulb went on. Not that I hadn’t seen a few glimmers by this point, about 5 days into my 2 week stay. We’re only taken advantage of when we allow it, so I claim full responsibility for staying this long. But in my defense, I’d already purchased my non-refundable train ticket to my non-negotiable next location, my first house-sitting job. So I was kind of stuck. And she had promised we’d see castles…
I asked her, when exactly were we going to see these castles, and she said that I should work a couple more days, to finish getting things ready for her open house, and she’d give me a day off. She also said she wanted me to work at her open house, giving tours, keeping the candles lit, and selling her art, while she left, as she had other things to do. I pointed out that anyone likely to visit would speak French, and I do not, not to mention that they would be coming to see her. This didn’t seem to matter, and I saw the writing on the wall. There would be no sightseeing for me, only 2 weeks of hard labor for no pay.
“I’m happy to help you some,” I said, “but I need a little time for my own pursuits as well.”
“What?! You didn’t think I was going to let you stay for free, did you?!!” she screeched. This was a side of her I hadn’t seen, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I pointed out that I thought she’d invited me as a friend, not as slave labor (I think I actually said an unpaid employee, to be a little less blunt), and she said that I was her Woofer. For those who don’t know, woofing is something common in several countries, where you can work on an organic farm in exchange for room and board, and learn a skill. I didn’t point out that woofing was 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, not 12 hours a day, 7 days a week with no skill being taught, just hard labor, as by this point she was lecturing me in a very angry voice. It brought me to tears, and I have to admit, I took the coward’s way out, or maybe the smart way, as her behavior at this point was a little erratic and scary.
Did I mention that she says the contrails in the sky aren’t jet fuel, but poisons being spread on our food supply to make us all sick to control population growth and cause a need for more cancer drugs to fund the pharmaceutical industry? And that ground up microchips are being put in our food and soda to track us? She says there are aliens among us disguised as humans, and that our government has traded things for technology secrets. Maybe she’s right about all of her conspiracy theories, who am I to say, but it had me a little concerned.
I’d had a message that day from a true fairy godmother, a dear friend, who, when she heard about my plight, told me to get out of there immediately and she’d cover a room for me in the nearby city until it was time for me to head to my housesitting job in 9 days. As I said, there are those Travel Angels out there who are life’s blessings, and there are those tricksters who would put on a smiling face, and then take as much advantage of you as you allow them to. And I was finished allowing. I’m on my way to being an ex-people pleaser!
This was like a fairytale, where someone baits you with something sweet – the witch in disguise in Snow White with a poison apple, the witch in Hansel & Gretel with the candy house waiting to shove you in the oven, and the wicked stepmother in Cinderella who makes you sweep the ashes, all wrapped up into one.
I told this woman I had some personal things to attend to and needed a day to do so, which was true, I just didn’t elaborate. “All right, I’ll give you one day off to go see some castles, and I’ll tell the tour bus driver where to drop you off afterward so you can walk back here and get back to work.” Wow, really? I don’t think so.
The next morning, I wrote her a message telling her that I wouldn’t be going on a castle tour, I wasn’t feeling well, (very true, since I had been breathing ashes and mouse dung, and had conked my head so hard on the low overhead beams while sitting up from cleaning the mouse droppings under the eaves, that it ended up hurting for 2 months!) and that I had some other things I needed to do. I didn’t tell her that the other things were to find a cheap hotel, pack my bags, and get out of there as fast as possible! It was peak tourist season, and at first it looked like there were very few accommodations, at least affordable ones, and I didn’t want to spend much, as I was being gifted by a saintly benefactress, my very own fairy godmother. I walked to the tourist office, where they did some calling around and found me a room in a quaint old one-star hotel, which even had a little kitchen area so I could cook my meals instead of eating out.
Once I was settled in, I wrote Astrid that although I appreciated her hospitality, and was happy to have helped her out, I had other things I needed to do, and had moved out of her flat. She wrote back that it’s too bad I was unable to talk about my “wishes, desires, and needs” and that I “probably need to grow up a little bit more to allow you to talk about things that upset you…” I had to laugh, and look at it as one of life’s experiences, not worth contradicting, a contrast to all of the wonderful times I’ve been having on my journey.
So a little word of caution – sometimes if things seem too good to be true, they truly are. Hopefully if you find yourself in a Cinderella tale, it will have a happy ending. Mine did! There were no glass slippers, they’re not very practical for traveling, too heavy and they break. And there was no Prince Charming either, but then I don’t really need one, and sometimes they snore. It’s nice to know that fairy godmothers really do exist though, and I did, in the end, see castles…