Stripes Are Not My Style…Or How We Almost Landed In A Foreign Prison


Long before the euro was born each European country had their own currency. We were traveling to Portugal and crossed over the border on a Sunday and had no way to exchange money. So we went to do what most American’s do when they are at a loss about what to do…found a hotel and searched for a place to eat.

Believe it or not, seventeen years ago it was difficult to find a place to eat that was open on a Sunday in a small village in Portugal. Eventually, we ended up at a family restaurant that took credit cards and had a decent view of the square. Apparently we stuck out like a sore thumb because as we struggled with the menu a short dark-haired woman made her way over to our table.

“I speak English. Do you need help ordering?”

We smiled in relief as she took charge explaining, translating and ordering to the waitress who had made it obvious she didn’t have time for foreigners who didn’t speak the language.

The woman introduced herself as Maria. Her husband, Antoinio, daughter, Ceclia and son, Peter, soon followed her up to our table. And then, as strangers often do in these types of situations, we changed tables (causing the waitress to scowl even more)  dragged our tables close together and began to talk in Spanish, English and Portuguese. It was a beautiful blend of languages and somehow we began to understand one another in that putting-on-no-airs, rather primitive, I-want-to-get-to-know-you sort of way.

We ate and we talked. We talked and we ate. The wine flowed while the kids grew bored. It was about that time that Maria asked us if we needed any money since she knew that the banks were not open on a Sunday. We were grateful for her kindness and followed the family off to the local bank where B did some currency exchange calculations. And then, as Maria looked over her shoulder and whispered, “We could go to prison for doing this,” we exchanged three crisp one hundred-dollar bills for a humongous fistful of escudos, the sheer number of banknotes threatening to break the bank and overflow our pockets.

Just as we were getting ready to leave the bank Maria and Antonio invited over to their house. Being the completely trustworthy and adventurous travelers that we are we climbed into our rental car and began the trip through the small city to our new friends home. It was a nice place in the suburbs where our daughter spent the afternoon playing together while the adults (cousin K included) drank more wine, laughed a lot and swapped stories about our travels. Three hours later we made it back to our hotel…and that’s where our troubles began.

While standing in the lobby B observed that the hotel did in fact have its own currency exchange something we had failed to notice prior to our trip to the restaurant. B went up to the front desk for clarification. As I was taking in the sights beyond the front window, I suddenly heard a low moan, like the whine of a rocket as it falls towards its intended target. In a flash an ashen B crossed the lobby and was by my side whispering tersely in my ear.

“We have a major problem. I made a big mistake.”

“What do you mean you made a big mistake? What are you talking about?”

It was then that B explained to me that his usually meticulous and always correct solving for x mathematical prowess had somehow gone all wrong. That he had, in fact, mis-placed a decimal. And so it turned out that while we were suppose to have transacted an even exchange of money, we had inadvertently “stolen” over one thousand dollars from our new friends.

We panicked as fear soured our throats and clutched at our rib cages. I think we yelled at one another. Once, maybe twice. Sweat broke out on B’s upper lip and we wondered aloud what the color of prison uniforms were in Portugal and if my father would be able to raise Jackie while we spent the next twenty years learning Portuguese in the pokey.

When we finally settled down we made a plan to try to find our way back to Maria’s house. If we could. We had just made it to the parking lot when in the distance we heard the “WAH-HUH-WAH-HUH-WAH-HUH” of a police siren.

“Let’s make a run for it,” I screamed like some mentally deranged character straight out of a B-movie.Jail

B floored the gas pedal… and circled the parking lot…as the police car drove straight by us… and further down the road. Then peeling out of the parking lot, B made a sharp left and headed back into town. Way over the speed limit. I prayed that my usual been-there-once-can-get-there-again instinct would kick in. It did.

We arrived at Marie’s disheveled, perspiring and frantic. We pounded on their front door like the Gestapo. Marie, who had consumed quite a bit of wine, opened the door with a look of disbelief on her half-crocked face that those pesky Americans were on her doorstep yet again. With trembling voices we explained the situation as Antonio was dutifully summoned to the stoop. They were grateful for our honesty and we were thankful that they had not yet done the math. We parted ways all of us relieved at the story book ending.

Several weeks later, when I tried to email Maria, the message was bounced back as undeliverable. That inability to reconnect gave me pause and since then I have wondered if we left Maria and Antonio permanently scarred and distrustful due to their experience with us or did they continue to be the same caring/concerned people still willing to help out any poor bloke who is down in his luck? I would like to believe it is the latter.

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