Funny you should ask ... Tim Gamble

What is the farthest you have ever traveled?

I’ve always thought of my life as a series of giant circles. Every time I found myself in a far-off place I hadn’t been to in a while, I’d start reflecting on who I’d become and all I’d experienced since the last time I was there. Thinking back I was both amazed and humbled by all the things I never saw coming. I learned that life will teach you everything you need to know if you’re listening. You just need to be there.

It was the Spring of 1988. I was working in Texas. Sales at my stores were rapidly growing. The previous year I purchased an inordinate amount of radio advertising, saturating a few popular stations in the Houston area. Every time you turned on the radio all you would hear playing was another one of my commercials. The campaign worked exceedingly well. I spent so much money on radio that the station owners asked me if I’d like to join them and a few other advertisers on a trip to Europe. Accepting these kinds of offers at my level was prohibited by the corporation I worked for, so I sent it up the chain of command and alerted the vice-president that there was a trip to Monte Carlo available from the media company if he wanted to take advantage of it. To my surprise and delight the VP said, “Why don’t you take it this time. You earned it.”

At the beginning of April, the media company sent me an itinerary including all the preparations necessary to participate in the trip. The most important of course was passports. Neither Sandy nor I had a passport. We’d both been all over Canada, the U.S. and Mexico but that was the extent of our travels. We went to the passport office in Houston to apply. They told us we needed a recent photo and a copy of our birth certificates. I had mine at home, no problem. Sandy didn’t. She contacted her father and asked if he knew where her birth certificate was. Walter said he had it somewhere and promised to send it. So far so good. We needed the passports by the end of April so the French consulate would have enough time to issue the visas.

When Sandy’s birth certificate arrived, she wouldn’t let me see it. Sandy was adopted by her stepfather and she, for some reason, didn’t want me to see her birth name. Sandy applied for a passport using her new name. We then needed the papers to show her legal name change. What a hassle. I told her I hope I’m not going to France by myself. Time is running short to get the passports and visas. With only two days left we went to the passport office to complete the process. The clerk in the office was satisfied with Sandy’s paperwork but now they weren’t happy with mine. The birth certificate that I’ve been using for everything since I can remember, even as a child, was not a birth certificate at all. What it was is a birth announcement issued by the hospital where I was born but not an official state document. Yikes, I’m in trouble. I’ve got two days left to get this done or no trip.

I called the hospital listed on the birth announcement and asked them to connect me to the records department. I spoke to a polite young lady about my predicament. I asked her if she could find it in her heart to overnight my birth certificate to me. She said she was sorry but no. I would have to make a request for my birth certificate in writing and she would then immediately mail it to me. That was the best she could do. I asked her what her name was. I thanked her for her understanding and said, “What I am going to do is send you a FedEx envelope with a note inside reminding you of our conversation and a prepaid return envelope along with a 20-dollar bill for you, just for helping me. All you need to do is put a copy of my birth certificate in the return envelope and drop it at FedEx. On the morning of the last day, the FedEx envelope did arrive, just in time to make it back to the passport office, get the passports, and get to the French consulate to get the visas. Crisis averted!

Next stop was Houston International Airport. This was going to be an overnight flight leaving at midnight. We were to meet our hosts at 10 pm in a special terminal staging area for international flight for a little bon voyage party. For the next two hours our hosts were busy counting heads, checking passports and visas to make sure everything was in order. As we socialized with our newfound friends, other invitees from around the country flew in to join us. Soon we were on our way to Paris.

The month before we left, I bought a Berlitz course in French to learn a few rudimentary phrases that might help me get around a bit easier in Monaco especially, “How you say in French,” “Comment vous dites dans Français,” enough to be dangerous anyway. We changed planes in Paris. I tried out my French in an airport café. So far so good, I got what I ordered. Soon we were off to Nice and then a short bus ride to the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo. Let’s get the party started.

Sandy standing on the balcony in our room at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo
Sandy standing on the balcony in our room at the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo

It was dusk when the bus pulled up in front of the hotel. We were checked in at the curb while the bags were unloaded and marked with our prospective room numbers. That’s when I first met B.J., a lovely southern lady also from Texas. B.J. and her husband owned the largest brewery in Houston. She had purchased new luggage for the trip to Monte Carlo and the stewards who were sorting and tagging the bags were marking the room numbers on the side of each bag in white chalk. Sandy bought new luggage too, but not from Louis Vuitton. B.J. went off, castigating the stewards and rubbing the chalk off the bags using some very colorful not so ladylike language. The hotel liaison stepped in and quickly quelled the kerfuffle. It wouldn’t be the last. Next up was Fred.

Fred was an entrepreneur from Chicago who had developed a line of hair care products for African American women. He and a childhood friend, a liquor store owner, from Arkansas were having difficulty getting into the hotel. The security guard at the front entrance was blocking their way. I quickly jumped in front of Fred showing the guard my room key and said he’s with me, we’re guests here and you need to step aside. The guard relented. I found out later that, black people were barred from staying at this hotel. I’m not sure but I think Fred Luster may have been their first African American guest.

After getting settled Sandy and I headed for the Casino de Monte-Carlo. I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. People were dressed to the nines, long gowns, and tuxedos. Feeling a bit out of place we decided to try our luck at the Lowes casino instead. This was more our speed. I changed several hundred dollars into various denominations of French coins and gave Sandy half. I played a few slot machines and quickly lost all my money. I went to see how Sandy was doing. She was winning. I watched as she put more and more coins into the progressive slot machine and pulled the handle. I asked her if she know how much she had won? She didn’t know. I pointed out to her that the coins she was using were 100 francs apiece. It still didn’t register. I told her, “Every time you fill up the slots, you’re betting $90.” She looked at me a said, “Really?” She immediately started gathering her winnings from the tray. I told her, “You don’t have to quit. I just thought you should know.” She handed me her coin bucket and asked, “How much did I win?” After I counted it, I told her that she’d won almost $500. I reiterated, “You don’t have to quit if you don’t want to.” She said, “I do want to quit, so I can say I won in Monte Carlo.”

The next morning, we all met for a breakfast buffet at Le Grill on the top floor of the hotel. It was an amazing open-air restaurant with panoramic views of the Mediterranean, gorgeous. As we ate breakfast, our hosts presented the touring schedule for the week ahead. The weather was perfect. I commented to Sandy that in Houston if you put out a spread like this, you’d have to fight off all the little critters to get to the food. Sandy replied, “Don’t worry. No bug in the world could afford this place.”

First up was Prince Rainier’s Palace and Princess Grace’s resting place at the Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate. It was quite a moving experience. Grace Kelly, a young Hollywood starlet, met and married the Prince of Monaco and was swept away to a life of beauty and grace as the Princess of Monaco. For 25 years Princess Grace was the heart and soul of the principality until her untimely death from an auto accident on the Grande Cornish in the hills above the city. It had been six years since the Princess passed away but to the good people of Monaco it seemed like only yesterday.

Princess Grace’s final resting place at the Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate
Princess Grace’s final resting place at the Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate

We spent the rest of the day window shopping with our host from the radio station in Houston, and his wife. I don’t remember their names but let’s call them Curt and Nancy. Curt was a luxury boat enthusiast and had just purchased a new 42 ft. yacht in Houston. He finagled a private tour of the Riva sales and service facilities in the harbor. The yachts were beautifully hand-crafted mahogany speedboats from a bygone era. They don’t make these boats anymore, but you can still buy a used one. Some go for millions. Nancy was delighted with the scenic beauty of the harbor and regretted leaving her camera at the hotel. I told her the light for photographing the harbor would be better in the morning and suggested we come back at sunrise and take photos together. She said, “It’s a date.”

That night Sandy and I were on our own uncoupled from our benefactor’s checkbook. They did have several other outings planned for the week ahead but this night we were on our own dime. Sandy and I and another couple from the tour went out to dinner together. It seems without reservations, it’s hard to find a table. We finally found a little Italian bistro. There was no room inside, but they set up a small table for us on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The menu was in French. I tried my best to order something, but the waiter kept shaking his head, no. Obviously, we weren’t on the same page or continent for that matter. I finally broke down and asked in English if he could help me with the menu. “Avec plaisir à Monsieur.” We finally decided that we’d each have the spaghetti with sauce and baguette. We spent an enjoyable evening getting to know each other. Tex and his wife were also from Houston. He was the COO of a local chain of convenience stores. They confessed to being a little uneasy over the opulent lifestyle in Monte Carlo, not to mention the plate of spaghetti we just spent a fortune on didn’t even come with a meatball. According to Tex, spaghetti always comes with a meatball. You’d think a simple meal for $80 would tantalize the taste buds, but no. My wife makes it better. She’s had a bit of practice, a story for another time. Sandy and I ended the evening in the lounge back at the hotel. I made my signature balloon animal, a teddy bear, and left it on the bar.

I should explain. In 1986 I was faced with having to quit smoking. There was a local ordinance going to take effect on the first of January the following year which prohibited smoking in retail establishments. I had 8 months to quit. It’s not easy to quit smoking. I needed to find something to keep my hands busy. I tried several strategies. I learned to throw a yo-yo, I learned how to juggle, and I learned how to make balloon animals. The yo-yo and juggling as a distraction didn’t work for me. Surprisingly though, balloon animals did and were a big hit with my customers.

The next morning, I got up before sunrise and went downstairs to the lobby to meet Nancy for our date. She wasn’t there yet so I parked myself in one of the chairs to wait. There were a dozen or so maids and stewards busy cleaning, polishing, and vacuuming the area. One of the maids found the balloon bear I made the night before and was showing it to her coworkers. As they passed it around and marveled at the curiosity, I pulled a balloon from my shirt pocket and made another one. The cleaning staff quickly stopped what they were doing and hurried over to watch. I made a few more animals as they laughed and cheered. The concierge was having none of it. He quickly interceded and admonished them to go back to work. One of the stewards asked me a question in Italian. I responded, “Je ne comprends pas.” I didn’t understand what he was saying. He pointed to the concierge and started singing da-dant-da-dant-da-dant… The concierge was a dead ringer for Peter Sellers. I get it, you want me to make a pink panther balloon. He nodded, “Si, Si.” I replied, “Un memento,” as I pointed to the stairs. “I need to get some pink balloons from my room.” The pink panther wasn’t one of my creations, but I did know how to make it. It was a large sculpture comprised of 3 balloons. Sandy was just waking up when she heard the familiar squeaking and said, “Too early”. I said, “Too late,” and I was on my way. I got in the elevator and pushed the button for the lobby. The elevator stopped at the 3rd floor and what can only be described as a diminutive figure impeccably dressed entered the car. She immediately started speaking to me in French. I replied, “Je suis Américain. Parles-tu Anglais.” She answered, “Yes, I speak English. What do you have there?” I explained the circumstances and what I was doing. The elevator door opened, the steward came over and took the balloon and presented it to the concierge amid the laughter of his coworkers. It was the first time I saw the concierge break from his formal magisterial persona and crack a smile. All of this witnessed by the elegant lady I met on the elevator. Nancy was already in the lobby when I came back with the pink panther balloon and asked, “What was that all about?” as we headed for the “pleasure harbor” to take photos.

Yachts in the pleasure harbor at Monte Carlo
Yachts in the pleasure harbor at Monte Carlo

Nancy and I strolled around the harbor talking and taking pictures as we went. The sunlight was perfect for capturing the boats and their reflections on the water. After several hours we stopped at Racine’s, a restaurant and bar, for a cup of coffee. Nancy asked me to show her my prowess with balloons. I obliged and soon we had a small crowd in the restaurant watching. Among them was a group of fellows who, I found out later, worked as crew members on Onassis’s yacht in the harbor. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying when they motioned to me. What I guessed was, show us how you do that. So, I did. I taught them a beginner’s balloon class for the next half hour. The bar was a laugh riot. As we left, Nancy commented, “Oh my god, that was hilarious.” I said, “Yeah, well, welcome to my world.”

That night about 16 of us went out to dinner as guests of Curt and Nancy. They made reservations at Racine’s. We were out on the patio at the front of the restaurant sitting at one long table. Sandy and I were seated at the end of the table across from Tex and an empty chair reserved for his wife. Tex explained that he didn’t think she would be joining us, she wasn’t feeling well. The end of the table where I was sitting extended to the street. On the other side of the narrow lane was the harbor. As we were having drinks a black Rolls Royce pulled up on the harbor side. The driver opened the door and two well-dressed ladies exited, draped in jewels, with long gloves, and fur coats. They walked across the road and sat down at our table. One lady sat next to Tex and the other pulled over a chair and sat next to me. The waiter came and took their drink order. Tex was trying to fend off the overly friendly woman sitting next to him while the other one grabbed my arm and rested her head on my shoulder. I had no idea what was going on but hey, “When in Rome,” right? Sandy looked over at me and with her eyes asked, “What are you doing?” I shrugged my shoulders and shook my head in reply. About ten minutes later the owner came over and whispered to me that these women were his gift in appreciation for the frivolity in his restaurant earlier that day. I thanked him, shook his hand, and said, “Perhaps another time.” The Rolls Royce flashed its headlights and the two ladies of the evening got up and left, but not before giving me a big kiss on the cheek. Tex looked at me and asked, “What just happened?” I told him, “I must have ordered the wrong thing again.”

The next day we met the hotel’s activities coordinator assigned to our tour. Brigitte was a beautiful blonde French girl in her late twenties. She accompanied us on every excursion as a guide and interpreter. She arranged a bus trip to the beach in Nice for a little sunshine, for anyone who cared to join. Curt arranged for a water-ski outing in the Mediterranean and invited Sandy to join him. When the bus pulled into the parking lot, the beach was not readily visible from the elevated road. Access to the beach was from a stairway at the far end of the pavement. The stairs led down to a small bar and a changing area. Even from the pub you couldn’t see the beach off to the left only the ocean view through a large glass window behind the bar. I sat down with my new friends and ordered a beer. They asked me if I was going to go swimming. I said I didn’t bring a suit. They laughed and said you don’t need one. Even though this was a public beach, it was a nude beach. As we sat there and sipped our drinks, one of the couples from our tour decided to give it a try and left for the changing rooms. They literally stripped in front of us and exited the door to the beach. The discussion turned to “I wonder what it’s like out there?” They convinced me to take a stroll on the beach and take a few pictures. When I came back, they were giggling like schoolgirls. I told them. “It’s not what you think. It’s like a group of sea lions out there, six to sixty. It’s not titillating at all, it’s the cure for it.”

Of the 40 plus members of our tour group, the same twenty or so signed up for all the side trips. The others seemed content to stay in town. Throughout the week we toured the historic mountain villages on the Côte d’Azur and northern Italy. Each evening when we returned, we were treated to dinner and drinks at a series of different charming little restaurants. One such place was just above the city in the hills on the Route de Menton. For this stop, Nancy urged me to bring the balloons.

We were the first ones in the door, when the restaurant opened for the evening. There was a small, elevated stage on the left and about a dozen or so tables around the perimeter. We were seated at a long table on the far side of the room. As we walked to our table, I opened my balloon bag and placed several balloons on each empty table. The evening went something like this: We were having drinks before ordering dinner. Other patrons began to arrive. I started making a few balloon sculptures and by balloon sculptures, I don’t mean just the kind you’d find at a children’s party. Some of these creations were of a much bawdier nature, for adults only. A troupe of Italian singers started performing on stage. Some of the guests at the other tables were trying to blow up their balloons. Some were successful, others not. Some came over to our table to have me blow up their balloons. Others motioned me to come over to their table to help. I went from table to table putting on the balloon show until I wound up back at our table, where everyone was also trying to blow up their balloons. So, what you have is an alcohol fueled chaotic party amidst the sounds of Italian singers trying to do their act. The laughter and banter were so loud, not to mention all the balloons exploding, that the singers stopped their performance and walked off the stage. They weren’t offended. They wanted in. Each one pulled up a chair and scootched in between us. Our waiter brought them drinks and the party was on. A well-dressed gentleman came over to our table and entreated our waiter with several questions. The waiter answered with very animated gestures while he pointed at me. Everyone in the restaurant was laughing, drinking, and howling. The owner started speaking to me in what I can only assume was French, I couldn’t understand a word of it. He motioned for me to sit at the head of the table as he pulled out a chair. As I moved over, he whispered something to our waiter. Seconds later the chef came out of the kitchen carrying a knife. At that point I didn’t know if I was on the menu or not. The waiter rolled out a cart with a large roast on it and set it next to the chef. The waiter whispered to me that this was in my honor. The owner instructed the chef to serve me personally and to attend to my every need. The hoopla eventually died down and the evening ended amid handshakes and bows and we returned to our hotel. As I entered the lobby the concierge handed me a note from the restaurant owner imploring me to please come back tomorrow.

Mid-week there was a break in the schedule with no planned activities. We were on our own to do as we pleased. Sandy and I went downstairs to Brigitte’s office and asked her if she could help us rent a motorcycle for the day. She hadn’t had that request before and she had no contacts.

Brigitte at her desk with Sandy
Brigitte at her desk with Sandy

She picked up the phone and called a motorcycle dealer in Nice and asked the manager how she would go about renting a bike. She took copious notes and when she hung up, she said, “I have secured a motorcycle for you. I need your credit card.” I asked her how much it was, and she replied, “$265 a day plus an insurance deposit.” She called the dealer back and read the credit card number to him over the phone. The dealer told her my card didn’t go through. How embarrassing! I said there must be a mistake. This card has a $3000 limit. She replied in her sweet little French voice, “I’m sorry Monsieur Tim, the bill comes to $4600. Do you have another card?” I was a bit shocked at the steep price and replied, “I don’t want to buy the motorcycle. I just want to rent it.” Brigitte explained to me that the extra charge was merely an insurance deposit covering the price of the motorcycle and my card would be reimbursed when the bike was returned to the shop owner. It was his personal motorcycle. I think she meant to say assurance deposit but none the less we made the deal, and the bike was delivered within the hour to the hotel and Sandy and I were off to the Maritime Alps. After cruising around for a couple of hours we stopped at a little café for a bite to eat. We walked in and sat at the bar. No one else was there. Finally, someone came out from the back and said they were closed until 4 pm for “sieste.” I replied in my broken French that we were looking for something for lunch. Instead, I said, “We were hungry.” The gentleman went in the back and came out with a baguette smeared with pâté wrapped in brown paper. I thanked him and tried to pay but he said no and motioned for us to leave. We went outside, sat on the steps, and ate our lunch. It was as good as we’ve had in any of the fancy restaurants. I suppose everything tastes good when you’re hungry.

We made our way down to a little town near the Italian border named Ventimiglia. We stopped for gas and decided to shop at the grocery store nearby to pick up some film for the camera. It was a busy place, as modern as anything in the States but the best part was the prices were reasonable. We’d been spending money with reckless abandon for the last week and thought if we picked up a loaf of bread and some brie, we could skip a few lunch tabs back in Monte Carlo. As we pulled up to the front of the hotel, we were immediately restrained by a group of plain clothed security guards before we could get off the bike. They were barking orders in French and grabbed the bag of groceries from Sandy. I tried to explain that we were guests at the hotel and implored them to let me show them my identification and room key. Someone from the hotel staff finally came out front and explained the situation to the guards. They released us admonishing me for riding a motorcycle to the hotel, that I should have known better. Sandy went upstairs. I had to find a place to park the bike and have Brigitte call the shop to pick it up. She asked me if I wanted it for another day. I said, “No, I’m a quick study. I think it needs to go back.”

It was our last day in Monte Carlo. There are so many other stories to tell but none that don’t make me look dim-witted, so we’ll let other folks tell those stories. We got up early and caught the trip to the Parfumerie Fragonard in Grasse, France. We took the long way through the Valley of the Loup River. Brigitte was wearing a little thin on Sandy. Sandy said she was being too friendly. I said she was just being French. Brigitte always sat in the first seat on the bus opposite the driver so she could stand up, grab her microphone, and relate the points of interest we’d be passing along the way. On the last few trips Brigitte insisted that I sit next to her on the bus. I told Sandy “No big deal, she just wants to keep her eye on me.” I may have been a bit distracting on some of the other trips. I told Sandy there was nothing to it. Sandy said, “That’s not it. She’s flirting with you right in front of me and I don’t like it.” It turns out Sandy was right. During the bus ride, Brigitte leaned over and, in a very soft voice, said she was planning a trip to America, and that she’d like to come and visit me when she gets to Houston. Now what do I do? I said, “That sounds great. I’ll make sure you have our address before we leave.” “I have it,” she replied. Brigitte was wearing a green sleeveless dress with a white short sleave jacket. When the temperature in the bus went up the coat came off. She stood up when we passed a bridge that had been destroyed during a battle in the second world war. She grabbed her microphone in one hand and an overhead railing to steady herself with the other only to reveal her “aisselles naturelles,” her abundance of natural body hair. Sandy looked at me and saw the expression on my face. With a wry smile, trying not to laugh, and said, “She’s just being French.” I shook my head. Sandy asked, “Did you hear that? Was that the sound of your balloon popping?” Round one to Sandy.

When we arrived back at the hotel the concierge informed me of a note in my mailbox. It was an invitation to join Mrs. Yvonne Embiricos for high tea in her apartment on the 3rd floor at 4 o’clock and a key to the elevator. It was already after 3 and we needed get ready for a special farewell reception and dinner at the Hôtel Hermitage at 6 o’clock. I told Sandy she’d have to hurry. She said, “You get cleaned up and express my regrets to… Who was she again?” I said, “I think it’s from the lady I met on the elevator.” I told Sandy I’d be back in plenty of time for the reception. I got cleaned up, put on a suit, and headed for the third floor. The elevator opened to a long hallway. I knocked on the door in front of me and yes it was the lady I’d met earlier that week. We exchanged pleasantries and she invited me into her apartment. I was the only one there. I expressed Sandy’s regrets and explained that we had a reception at the Hermitage at 6 and Sandy needed time to get ready. She ushered me over to a pair of chairs by a window and asked me to make myself comfortable. She poured the tea while politely and adeptly guiding the conversation. She noted the fact she’d heard a few colorful stories about me and that I was not her usual tenant. I’m not sure who was gabbing, but she didn’t miss much.

The conversation eventually turned to her. Mrs. Embiricos owned the Hôtel de Paris. She inherited from her father, Sir Basil Zaharoff, better known as “The Merchant of Death,” the richest man in Europe. She told me stories about him that were beyond imagination. She was a widow once married to a Greek shipping magnate and good friend of Aristotle Onassis. The conversation turned to her best friend Princess Grace. She opened an album with hundreds of personal photos of the two of them enjoying life together. She was misty eyed as she relived the stories of her favorite photos. They were involved in almost everything to do with Monte Carlo society. Mrs. Embiricos was still the head of the Monte Carlo Opera Society. It was quite moving. As she closed the album she said, “The fairytale died when the princess died. Nothing has been the same since.” As she poured more tea the conversation turned to more recent events. “Did you see the yacht races this year? Wasn’t Prince Albert magnificent?” I told her that I regretfully missed seeing Prince Albert’s race. “Were you here for the Grand Prix though?” I told her I missed it by a day. She said, “We can’t have that. You’ll be my guest for next year’s race. I insist.” I thanked her. She said, “But you mustn’t bring anyone else. My balcony is so full now.” I said, “I promise.” I noted the time and told her I would have to take my leave. She asked, “Before you go, can you make me some of those marvelous balloon toys? I’m leaving for England tomorrow for my granddaughter’s birthday and I’m sure they would delight her.” I told her all my balloons were in my suite, but I could run upstairs and make a few animals and bring them right down. As I hurried into the room, Sandy was about ready to go. I told her before we could leave for the reception, I needed to make a few balloon animals for Mrs. Embiricos and that I’d be right back. On my return I presented the balloons to her with a brief explanation for each. There was a look of fascination on her face which was priceless as she commented, “Brilliant. She’s going to love these.” She confessed that this was the real reason she invited me to tea in the first place. I thanked her for her hospitality and bid her adieu.

Sandy and I were fashionably late for the reception. We ran into Fred Luster and his friend on the patio and exchanged a few stories. We hadn’t seen him since our first night at the hotel. Sandy complimented him on the suit he was wearing. It draped off him like an Adonis. I said, “Clearly, we don’t have the same tailor.” Sandy said, “It’s not the tailor.” Fred looked at me and asked, “Have you seen B.J.?” I said, “Not since the first night when she was defending her bags against the chalk monster.” Fred laughed. It seems they’ve crossed paths a few times and it didn’t go well. After drinks on the patio, we were summoned to the dining room. There were four large round tables, formally set. Each place setting was a course in “I hope I remember which spoon to use.” We found our place cards and took our seats. On my right a few chairs down were B.J. and her husband. On my left was Sandy and seated next to her was the couple from Cincinnati who owned the media conglomerate that paid for the trip. The wife of the esteemed owner was inebriated. She was miffed at me for having tea with Mrs. Embiricos. I don’t know how she knew what I was doing a couple of hours earlier, but she obviously had her sources. She was quite loud and acerbic complaining that she should have been asked to tea or at least I should have asked her to go with me. I hadn’t seen the woman since the morning after our arrival, but I apologized for my inexcusable error. She insisted that I make her some stupid balloon animals. After all, she was the one who paid for the trip. I again apologized for my slight and expressed my regret that I had no more balloons to twist.

Dinner was a little more settled. I turned my conversation to B.J. and her husband. She told me all about their brewery and her life in Houston. As the evening was winding down and people were moving to the lounge for drinks, I was approach by Fred. He asked me if I knew where the restrooms were. I said, “I think there just down that hallway,” as I pointed the way. He said he’d been down there but didn’t find the men’s room and could I show him. I said, “Sure.” We went down the corridor that led to the restrooms and Fred asked, “Okay, where is it?” I told him, “There doesn’t appear to be a men’s room. It looks like these facilities are for everyone.” Fred replied, “I’m not comfortable with that.” I said, “Well, let’s just check it out.” We went in. No one was in the room. There was a bank of dressing tables on the left side and a row of sinks on the right. At the rear of the room were four white doors, three were open, exposing the water closets, and the fourth one was closed. Fred was still a little apprehensive and asked me to stay and wait for him. I said I would. As Fred closed the door behind him, B.J. emerged from the other closet adjusting her dress. When she looked up and saw me, she forcefully asked, “What are you doing in here. You’re not supposed to be here.” I apologized for startling her and explained that these were unisex restrooms meant for everyone to use. She said, “I’ve never heard of such a thing. We’ll just see about that.” As she washed her hands, she heard the door behind her open. She turned around and saw Fred coming out of his closet. She became irate, reminiscent of the first time I met her. I stepped in between her and Fred and asked him to make a hasty retreat. B.J. was almost in tears when she said she’d never been more humiliated than having a black man invade her personal space like that. I tried to comfort her, but she angrily rebuffed me saying, “You’re no different!” I left and rejoined Sandy. “Did you find the restrooms?” she asked. I replied, “Yes, and more. The South is alive and well, I’m not too sure about Fred.” I found Fred and apologized for the mishap. He said he’d been putting up with that kind of stuff all week and that he’d be glad to get back to Chicago. I told him, “If it’s any consolation, Sandy and I enjoyed meeting you.” Fred responded in kind, but you could tell there was nothing you could say or do that would undo the damage.

The next morning, it was time to say good-bye to Monte Carlo. As the plane was taking off from Nice, Sandy and I were looking out the window at the Côte d’Azur for the last time. I asked, “Did you have fun?” Sandy replied, “I did!” I commented, “We met some real characters, didn’t we?” “None more than you,” she teased. “Touché!” “Enough with the French already.”

What is the farthest you’ve ever traveled is such an interesting question? The two hours I spent with Mrs. Embiricos reminiscing through nearly a century of photos, listening to her talk about the most intimate details of her life was by far the most interesting experience I had in Monte Carlo, but it was also, in every sense of the word, my longest journey.



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