Putting a Price on Gratitude
Zurich, Switzerland, Spring 2002. I excused myself to use the restroom in the Jules Verne Panorama Bar, a bar on the 11th floor of a tower in the city center of Zurich, offering 360° views of the whole town. After graduating from the University of San Diego the previous spring I was certain that I did NOT want to get a ‘real’ job immediately after graduating. Additionally, after two political internships while in college, one for the Governor of California and one for a member of the House of Commons in England, I was also certain that politics and government were NOT my calling. I had graduated with a BA in International Relations and knew as I was handed my diploma that I wasn’t going to be using my degree.
I had, however, double minored in Spanish and French, and those languages were getting me places. After graduating I was hired as an English Assistant in the French public school system and just two weeks after 9/11 I flew to France to live and teach. At age 21, I absolutely loved my life. I took advantage of every long weekend and holiday to travel around France and Europe. This was how I found myself having drinks with my Swiss friends, Marco and René, in a swanky bar in downtown Zurich.
When I walked out of the bathroom stall I noticed a large assortment of shopping bags sitting under the sink. I washed my hands and frowned. I didn’t recognize any of the European name brands on the bags but I was certain that someone had spent a day shopping downtown and had left every single one of their purchases in the bar’s bathroom. Without hesitating I scooped them up and carried the massive bundle out of the bathroom and towards the bar. I was going to give them to a hostess but Marco met me in the hallway and I explained what I’d found.
Suddenly a well-coiffed woman came tearing around the corner with a look of panic on her face. I was certain she was the owner of whatever was in the bags. I began explaining how I’d found them and Marco finished my story in Swiss-German. She was wearing a beautiful pink, cashmere sweater that matched the blotchy spots of anxiety on her cheeks.
Without skipping a beat she switched from using Swiss-German with Marco to English with me. “Thank you so much! This means so much to me that you returned them!”
I wanted to say, ‘well of course, who wouldn’t return them?’ but I stopped myself because the answer was that plenty of people would not have turned those bags in. “You’re so welcome! I’ve left stuff before. I’m happy to help.”
Back at the table Marco and I recounted the story to René and as we re-told it the woman approached me again. She tried to hand me a large wad of Swiss francs. I tried to wave her away, “Oh no, no, no. That’s okay.”
She was adamant and reached dramatically towards me to pass over the money. I leaned back further away from her, “No, really, you don’t need to do that.”
Seated to my right, Marco said quietly, “You should take it, Charlotte. It’s correct.” The lady in the pink sweater looked at Marco and then me, and I looked at Marco and then her. Hesitantly I reached out and accepted the cash.
“Well, thank you, but really, I didn’t do it for a reward.”
Her shoulders relaxed. She smiled, and with barely a trace of an accent she thanked me again and left the table.
“Marco, why did you say to take it?”
“It’s the right thing to do. In our culture, a reward for finding or returning things people care about, is expected.”
“Really? So if I’d been Swiss, I would have been wondering why she hadn’t offered me money as a way to say thank you?”
I took a slow sip of my red wine and contemplated this. I had done enough international traveling at that point in my life to have learned to not immediately criticize or compare cultural practices that were different than my own, especially out loud. There was nothing more annoying than hearing someone from another country proclaim loudly about how they ‘do it better’ at home. Sometimes, instead of deciding that a cultural practice is right or wrong, or better or worse, it’s worth simply storing the practice away in your memory for another time. Or maybe that’s just the writer in me; I file all kinds of things about life away for another time.
My friend, Kate Anthony, and I rendezvoused in Palm Springs two weeks ago to write our books. Kate is a life coach and specializes in helping people, especially women, through divorce. She is writing a book that is part memoir and part how-to. I’m writing the true life adventure story of how I met my husband, Eric, how we bought a sailboat, moved aboard, raised our daughters on the water, and ended up needing to be rescued at sea. The rescue at sea caused an international media fire storm about us and our parenting.
My book doesn’t just tell the story of that rescue and the ensuing media storm, it tells our entire story. Our life has been full of romance, defying the odds, and yes, some pretty incredible drama.
Kate and I watched the eclipse that Monday along with the other guests at the Orbit-In, a boutique, nine room, 1950’s inspired hotel in the heart of Palm Springs. The next day, I finished the last page of my book. I still had about a week’s work of editing and review to do, but that Tuesday I wrote the very last word and ended with:
: fin :
Finished. The end. It was a surreal accomplishment.
The Orbit-In serves cocktails every day at 5:00pm. At the appointed time, guests who had been enjoying the vintage charm (and modern AC) of their individual rooms slowly appear at the outdoor bar or take a dive in the pool. The hotel employee serving drinks that night was Jade. He poured us some ice cold white wine and listened attentively as Kate announced to other guests seated around us that I had just finished my book. Curious, they asked what I was writing about. I told them mine and Eric’s story.
I didn’t do all the talking, I promise. All of the guests shared their stories. One young couple was on vacation from France, another man was an Australian airline pilot. We found out that Jade was a native Palm Springer, born and raised there in the desert. We asked Jade about his life growing up in Palm Springs and he asked about our lives too.
The morning after arriving home from Palm Springs I received an email from the Orbit-In. It was a note from Jade:
Hoping this finds you safely home in Mammoth Lakes. Wanted to alert you that the housekeeper found these items of yours (photo attached) in your room this morning...hope you haven't been pulling your hair out looking for them! I will personally take them to the post office today. Take good care. We all look forward to your return...
When I looked at the attached photo, I gasped. I had been so meticulous when I packed, so careful to not have left anything behind, but there staring at me from the screen were these:
Let me tell you about these three items. Let’s start with the Kindle (the e-reader on the right with the pink cover). It is one of the oldest Kindles out there, so it’s not worth any money. It’s so old that Amazon let me know that they are no longer supporting it and the next time it fails, it’s dead. They don’t issue software updates for it anymore. It’s the little Kindle that could, but that’s not why it’s special.
It was a gift from Eric when I was pregnant with Cora, back in December of 2009. That Kindle, along with my current laptop, are two of the few remaining things I have from our life aboard Rebel Heart. We slipped my Kindle and both of our laptops into one of the bags we were able to bring with us off of the boat. They were all wrapped tightly in a waterproof case that was placed inside a waterproof SeaBag, and they survived. I have an almost irrational emotional attachment to them. I’ve replaced the keyboard on my laptop TWICE, the power cord three times. The screen sometimes goes fuzzy and blurs. It makes weird clicking noises like it’s alive. I know it’s on its last leg, as is the Kindle that is no longer supported by Amazon, but I cling to them. They made it off that boat in one piece and I’m not ready to say goodbye.
Then there is the little yellow Rite-in-the-Rain notebook. If you haven’t heard of Rite in the Rain, you’re in for a treat. The paper in these notebooks is waterproof. If it gets wet, your ink (if you use a special pen), or your pencil markings will not run. Amazing, right? Sailors and outdoors enthusiasts love them. This is the notebook I kept all my daily writings and notes in during our ill-fated Pacific passage. My heart almost stopped when I saw a picture of it there in Palm Springs when I was hundreds of miles away in Mammoth Lakes.
The contents of the journal are unbelievably personal. It has my entire list of things I kept to talk to Eric about on the passage. Prior to passages we’d both start collecting little tidbits to share with each other on the trip. Just the little things you might talk about over dinner, or interesting things from the news, even daily encounters you would normally recount after the kids were in bed or over wine. We would save them up and then talk about them during the long hours at sea. It has my notes from when we were on the Vandegrift after losing Rebel Heart:
“I’m in shock.”
“I’m covered in bruises.”
“What will we do now?”
I would have been bereft if I’d lost that journal.
The last item is the turquoise notebook with a clip on the front. There is nothing special about that notebook; I bought it at Target two years ago. Inside it, however, are pages of my notes. Among other things, it contained my handwritten notes from interviewing Eric (yes, I interviewed my own husband for my book) and notes from interviewing my sister, Sariah, who flew to San Diego during the 6+ days of the rescue and handled all of the media, interviews, updates, donations, etc.
Jade was true to his word. The package containing my items arrived just days before I finished the full first draft and exactly when I needed all of them to review my work during a final read through. I can’t even imagine where I would be if the wonderful housekeeper who found them hadn’t returned them or if Jade hadn’t sent them on to me.
I felt such immense gratitude when I saw my things returned safely to me that I wondered how I could ever repay them. My mind connected back 16 years prior, to the woman in the pink cashmere sweater in Zurich. Her gesture might have been borne out of custom and her items had all been brand new, but they were clearly of value to her. My items were not new, but they were imbued with the lasting power of sentiment, sweat, and tears.
I wrote out two thank you notes, one to Jade, and to the housekeeper. Per Jade’s suggestion, I wrote hers in Spanish. (My college degree may not have served me professionally, but those French and Spanish minors keep helping me out in spades.) I slipped a $50 dollar bill into each envelope. I realize some people will think this was an extravagant amount of money to say thank you. Others will think it was too little. Still others will think I shouldn’t have sent any money at all. If there’s one thing Eric and I have had some experience in, it’s wading through an ocean of people’s opinions about what we do with our lives. What matters to me is that I said thank you to them both. I don’t know if I can truly put a price on the kind of gratitude I’m feeling, but I sent what I had.
I hope my book about Rebel Heart will be published soon. I will keep you posted both here and on my Facebook page. The book was completed, in no small part, thanks to two wonderful people in Palm Springs who didn’t hesitate to do the right thing.
Post Script: if you’re thinking of visiting the Orbit-In, I give it a resounding five stars.