Hank Sydor admits that regardless of how well prepared he's been, he has a few embarrassing incidents to tell of his past foreign travels.

An interesting Dutch toliet -¿but first you have to gain access, and then you have to be able to see it. Courtesy of the Toliet Museum.
Regardless of how well prepared, every one of us has a few embarrassing incidents to tell of our past foreign travels. I know I have and in this article I am going to confess to you two of the stupid, embarrassing and nonsensical things that have happened to me over a period of 40 years of international travel.

Years ago in Maastricht, Netherlands, misadventure was lurking when I least expected it. And, of course, when you least want it. While some of these memories are most memorable, they are generally embarrassing, frustrating and certainly not funny at the time.

I paid a visit to the Maastricht public library to look at a few periodicals. Then I made a quick trip to the men's room (also one of the reasons I went to the library). I was confronted with three stalls that I could not open. I was in a hurry to get in and the doors were down to the floor and did not even permit one to crawl underneath. Nor could you climb over the stall. Believe me, I tried. Each stall was like a tiny little enclosed room.

There were small slots in the doors where the handles should have been, and I thought perhaps they were coin operated like so many other European countries. I pushed every Dutch coin in the slot and even a few German ones too, but nothing! Finally I went to the rotund library security guard who did speak some English. To my surprise he answered me in a loud, obviously annoying manner, "Of course you can't get into the toilets, there are no handles."

About 50 heads turned towards me. I wanted to yell out that I was not another stupid tourist; I just needed to get to a toilet in a hurry. But then I realized that's exactly what I was.

I collected my thoughts and asked, "Where does one get a handle?" "At the reception desk of course," he replied. I slapped my forehead. "The reception desk, of course!"

I walked over to the reception desk and spotted about six handles. I reached over to grab one. "Not so fast," the librarian seemed to be saying in Dutch. I stopped cold. Now what I wondered? Would I need a library card to check out a handle?

Apparently she just wanted my assurance that I would bring the handle right back when I was finished. When I promised to do so, she smiled and let me off to pursue my trip to the toilet. I found a stall where the door slot was not jammed with coins and inserted the handle and walked in with the door shutting behind me. It was pitch black and I could not find a light switch. I located something that felt like a light switch but it did nothing but make a clicking sound. I kept looking very cautiously not knowing what to expect. I reached over to open the door and suddenly realized that I needed the handle to open the door, and, of course, I had left the handle on the outside.

I banged on the door and called "help" in the most friendly voice I could muster. A few minutes later a passing patron rescued me. I muttered thanks as nonchalantly as one could while being rescued from a toilet.

With the door open, I searched for a light switch. Nothing. I opened the other two stall doors (keeping a firm grip at all times on the door handle) and couldn't find any light switches there either. I even checked the main bathroom switches. Nothing. Maybe, I thought, I needed to get a light switch from the reception desk. I reluctantly went back to the reception desk and asked my favorite security guard for illumination location assistance.

I was now certifying in his mind that I was the stupidest tourist he had ever met as a security guard. He regarded me calmly, then said in a voice so condescending that it would have been psychologically damaging to a three year old, "The light is already on."

"No, it isn't," I said.

"Yes, it is."

"No, it isn't."

He then marched me back to the toilets to show me the lights that I obviously could not see. He opened a stall and pointed to a miniscule "black" micro bulb up in the corner that gave off as much light as I got from my Timex watch.

"See," he said with a certain amount of arrogance, "It's on!"

"But," I insisted, "you can't see anything with it."

"That's all we have. The black light prevents the drug user from shooting up in here - they can't find their veins."

"But they can't find the toilet either," I pointed out. "That's a great way to drive drug users to drink." Needless to say he was not amused and I managed to sneak out of the library as inconspicuously as possible after I paid my visit to the library toilet.

In the autumn of 1997, I decided to go to Switzerland to watch my daughter race in the World Mountain Bike Championships. I had heard of the efficient Swiss, but my trip was going to show me how their efficiency fell far short of anything to brag about.

I flew to Paris and connected with a Swissair commuter flight to Bern where the ticket agent said I could catch a train to Chateaux d'Oex. I would have to change trains in Friborg. Alison's team had reserved a room for me at the team hotel and I thought that all was going well for me. I arrived in Bern and took a minibus into town to the train station. I asked the ticket agent for a ticket to Chateaux d'Oex and was told again that I would need to change trains in Friborg. Everything seemed to be going fine until I arrived in Friborg and went to catch the connecting train. I waited and waited and there was no train. I went up to the ticket office, but it was after 9:00 p.m. and the ticket office was closed for the evening. I finally found someone to talk to who said the train to Chateaux d'Oex did not run on Wednesday evenings.

I looked around for a taxi and was told that the one and only taxi had shut down for the night. And by this time, there certainly weren't any car rental agencies open either. Luckily, a nice gentleman came by and said the taxi driver was his younger brother and he arranged for the taxi to take me to my destination for a $100 fare payable in U.S. dollars. I was at his mercy, so what could I do?

On my return, a friend offered to drive me to Bern very early on the morning of my departure. I accepted, after the train ticket office gave me a partial refund on my return ticket. My flight did not depart until later that day but I felt that with all the connections to Paris (about eight) I would be able to go stand-by on an earlier flight and perhaps do something of interest in Paris.

I was dropped off at the Bern airport at 7:20 a.m. The first flight was at 8:30 a.m. Would it surprise you if I told you that the Swissair ticket agent absolutely refused to let me fly on stand by and take an earlier flight, even though none of the departing flights were even half full. The agent insisted that I had a 7:00 p.m. reservation and that was the only flight I would be allowed on, no ifs ands or buts about it. So much for efficiency. See you next month!