The ClusterFrance

Soooooo it's been a while....but I think everyone deserves an explanation for the situation that has become known as “The Great ClusterFrance of 2015”. (it was slim pickin's for photos - Bob's iPhone was stolen and not backed up...and THEN he accidentally cleared the memory card in his camera with all of the photos from our trip...) Anyhow, please enjoy the following words and sub-par iPhone photos describing our Euro escapade:  

In early May, I hopped on a plane in Orlando and was headed due east over the pond for (what was supposed to be) a month long adventure in France...

The ClusterFrance
The first week overseas was spent in the Southeastern French town of Montpellier for FISE, a massive action sports festival. Over 500,000 people come out to watch BMX, Wake, Skate, and Rollerblading…yes, rollerblading. To say it’s a gongshow is an understatement. I ended up 4th among the Pro Women but spent much less time actually at the festival than exploring Montpellier and the surrounding Mediterranean area. That first week consisted of exploration, endless croissants, cheese, standoffish wait service, and wine...lots of wine.   

France in particular is neat, but I have a deep admiration for anything rich with history and historical significance. And Europe is just that.

Public bikes in Montpellier - We're confident we hold the record for kilometers ridden in 24 hours
Bicycle adventure to the Mediterranean
After finals on the last of five days at FISE, I did a riding demo for GoPro and ended up booting off of the kicker and coming down with my left leg completely straight, severely hyperextending my knee. There was no twist or torque when I landed, so I was confident I hadn’t blown my ACL or anything too major, but given the severity of the pain and swelling, I knew something was wrong. Though trying to stay optimistic, I saw my entire France adventure flash before my eyes and spent the rest of the day pouting in my room and icing my leg. Erg.

The purpose of my trip was to spend three weeks following FISE RV-ing around France and Spain, riding at dozens of cableparks with my babe friend Dom Granger for the Unleashed Wakeboard Magazine “Road to Ropes” tour. Two chicks on an epic Eurotrip wake adventure – it seemed too good to be true...  Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to ride for at least a week and was contemplating even flying back to the states to get my knee looked at, I decided to take a few days to explore more of France on my own, rest my leg, and see if my knee felt good enough to join Dom. 

So, Bob and I rented a car and headed Biarritz, a small coastal town on the Atlantic coast of the South of France. After a pit stop in Bordeaux (for.... a glass of Bordeaux, of course!) we made it to Biarritz, and spent Tuesday and Wednesday exploring, EATING, and, you guessed it, drinking wine. I wrote, felt sorry for myself because of my fun-inhibiting knee injury, and took photos while Bob surfed. Biarritz is a very neat little medieval feeling beach town, and despite being 40 degrees and windy half of the year, is littered with world-class surf spots.

Bordeaux - crepes, cheese, and...well...Bordeaux!

On Wednesday Bob drug me (I am stubborn) to a French ER to get my knee looked at. Surprisingly, the service was quick and the staff were incredibly friendly (they tend to like it when you’re paying CASH). In between some serious NBA talk with the 6ft 5in French doctor, we managed to take a few x-rays which looked pretty good, but based on the amount of fluid in my knee, they assumed there had been tendon damage in addition to a severe bone bruise. Being that I wasn’t willing to pay out of pocket for an MRI at that time, I decided since I was already in France, I might as well join up with Dom on Friday as planned and continue exploring France and meeting new people… even if I couldn’t wakeboard.

Recognize me?
Thursday was our last day in Biarritz - Friday Bob was supposed to fly back to the states and I was going to be picked up by Dom in the RV to travel with her for the rest of my trip. Being our last day in the region, we decided to head up to Hossegor Beach, home of multiple famous surf breaks and one of the Surfing Pro Tour stops. After multiple surf checks, Bob decided to paddle out with a group of friendly strangers. Because I was hurt, I chose to take photos instead of surfing or writing, so I left my purse and backpack in the car. (Note: I always keep my things split up when traveling: Credit cards, cash, and medication - half stays in the room in my backpack or suitcase and half comes with in my purse. I also keep my passport hidden in the room. That morning I moved my passport into my backpack, and for some reason, I brought my purse and my backpack with me in the car…not considering the fact that in doing so, I had brought every form of ID, credit card, most of my cash, and all of my medication with me in the car, which I’d not done once the entire trip.)  

Moving on...

It was definitely the most beautiful day we’d had since arriving to Biarritz, and the beach was quiet and beautiful. After about an hour by the ocean, Bob surfing, I shooting photos, we decided we’d head back to Biarritz to relax for the rest of the afternoon before we had to leave the following morning. Upon returning to the car I immediately realized everything was gone and collapsed to the ground - my purse with my new macbook (yes, the one I wrote about previously), credit cards, cash, planner, and medication, as well as my backpack with my new wetsuit, two GoPros, my journal, my passport, and some other clothes. Bob’s pants were also gone with his credit cards, ID, and iPhone. With literally no cash, no ID, and Bob without pants, we frantically looked for a police station for over an hour. After difficult communications with some locals, we found a “Poste de Police”. While waiting to speak with an officer, we met three other groups who had also been robbed – all surfers, who’d been at different surf breaks along the beach road, each having their cars robbed while in the water. These vandals stopped at every beach break for a stretch of 50 miles, wiping out each parking lot they came by. 

Despite the stressful situation, the strangers were incredible friendly and sympathetic. The police were also very helpful despite the language barrier. This was only the beginning of the hundreds of helpful, caring people we would encounter in the next 24 hours. We got our police report (in French) and were on our way. Driving back to the hotel in Biarritz we literally had NO MONEY, so at every toll we had to get out of the car and ask the car behind us for money - quite humbling. Though devastated, violated, and out $3,000, I was calmed by the fact that I still had time to get to an embassy at some point before my flight home and get a new passport. “I have emergency medication in my suitcase,” I told my sister as that was the first thing she asked when I called to explain what had happened. And then panic set in when I realized I had moved my emergency medication to my backpack just hours before being robbed. It was all gone. 

To be clear, I won’t die if I don’t take my medication every day. It wasn’t a matter of me dying on the spot in France if I didn’t get it. Here’s the concern – I can go about 48 hours without taking my meds, and I will likely be fine. Anything beyond 3 days becomes a dangerous situation because anytime you take too low of a dose or miss a dose, it gives the Leukemia a chance to replicate and also become resistant to the medication. Even missing one dose a month has an affect on my counts when I have tests done. 

I had two options – stay in Biarritz and try to get this rare, very expensive ($$$$$$$) medication within two days – which was very unlikely. OR head straight to Paris for an emergency passport and fly straight home. It was Thursday evening; Paris was a 7-hour drive, and the embassy was only open for emergency passports from 8am-10am on Friday. They would not be open again until the following Tuesday as it was a holiday weekend, by which time it would be too late for me to get my meds. Every timing variable that could have went wrong at this point, did. So after weighing the options as thoroughly as possible and getting advice from many many people via Facebook and social media, Bob and I made the decision to get in the car and head straight for Paris. Luckily I had $200 cash left in the room, so we'd be able to afford gas for the journey. As the doors closed at the currency exchange in Biarritz, I traded in my last Dollars for Euros and we headed for Paris with 167 Euros. 

On the way out of Biarritz, we parked the car and watched the sunset on the coast. We were parked next to two gentlemen, a.k.a. French Hippies, also enjoying the sunset and some “extra curricular activities” in their van. They came out to chat and we briefly told them what happened. We exchanged laughs and before leaving one of them said to us, “Hey man, they can take your things, but they can’t take the good times!”

He's right. 

Hossegor - shooting photos whilst getting robbed...could be worse?
The Road To Paris 
Bob called Delta and pushed his flight back a few hours, and we drove through the night to the capital city. We peeled straight into the US embassy at 8:30am and Bob dropped me off - unshowered, no makeup, smelly, and blood shot from pulling an all-nighter. The only form of ID I had was an x-ray of my knee from the day before. Entering through metal detector on the way into the embassy, one guard said with a wink, “Get a good look at her knee when she goes through”. We all had a good laugh. Though they see stolen passports often, the embassy officials let me know this was a first for them - a girl with nothing but an x-ray with her name misspelled and no money to pay for her new passport.

Though the process took 5 hours, the people working at the embassy (picture a DMV on steroids) were very kind and made the experience about as pleasant as possible - like very bizarrely helpful and understanding (I guess it helps when you don’t even have a speeding ticket on your record). 

Around noon I walked out of Embassy, exhilarated, with a new emergency passport and a grin from ear to ear. A nice French guard approached me and said “Are you Alexa? Your friend has been waiting for you.” Not having a phone, and no means to communicate with me for the previous five hours, Bob had been driving laps around the embassy in the middle of the busiest intersection in Europe. He eventually found a parking ramp a mile away, spent our remaining $14 Euros on parking, made friends with the guards, and slept in the lawn in front of the U.S. Embassy. Where were the MTV cameras now?! (haha)

After getting my phone back (which you’re not allowed to take into the embassy with you) I turned it on and just as I hopped in the car, received a message that read:

“Ive found all your stuffs medicines and ID” with a name and a phone number.   

Delusional from lack of sleep, I thought my brain might explode. I called the number and in broken English the person on the other end said:

“I know, it sound strange, but I found your things (minus the cash and electronics) in a trash pile at the beach in Hossegor. I look you up on Facebook and see people very concerned so I find your email. I see you are in trouble, how can I get you your medication?”

Confused, skeptical, but hopeful, I told him that there was no way for me to get back to Hossegor but my friend Dom was actually driving through Hossegor THAT EVENING. Dom, who speaks French, called the stranger to confirm location, and with zero hesitation, agreed to meet him and pick up my things. Trains and flights to the south were limited, and I didn’t want to risk the chance of traveling that far not knowing if what I needed was actually in my bags. So, I made the decision to stay the night Paris (insert "One Night in Paris" joke here), and fly to the US the following morning. It was a hard decision, going home not even halfway through my adventure, but I thought it was the right and responsible thing to do.

Unplanned, yet convenient, sunrise sightseeing on the way to the Embassy
Paris in the Springtime 
That evening I found out two of my friends were also in Paris for the night and was able to meet them (and celebrate their day old engagement). Having no money, they treated me to dinner and brought me to the Eiffel Tower for a quick glass of wine. It was stunning. Having not slept for 50 hours, I was delirious, gross, tired, bummed, and in pain, my knee the size of a basketball…but the sight of the Eiffel Tower, lit up in the Paris sky, was a perfect ending to an imperfect trip. At this moment, the structure's stunning beauty, seen internationally as a symbol of love, travel and France, was now more than that - to me it was a symbol of life, love, and friendship.

Through our debacle hundreds of people, friends and strangers, of all nationalities, colors, and shapes, speaking multiple languages reached out to help. People in the US contacted friends overseas, overseas people contacted relatives who might be able to help, people sent links with information, phone numbers, addressees, and countless resources. And NONE of them went unnoticed or unappreciated. Every time I look back to think about it, I cannot help but become emotional. To feel cared for, to see people work together despite different backgrounds, and for people to put materialistic issues behind them and truly care about each other is the essence of life. People are always in search of meaning and purpose… THIS is the purpose. To love and be loved. If we all put the insignificant crap behind us - the problems we’ve created and put on ourselves - and simply focus on each other and eachother's well being, what a world this would be. (And what fun we could have!) 

Short and Sweet 
There’s no way I can ever thank everyone enough for their assistance and concern, but we appreciate it and can only try to pay it forward at every opportunity. Though we're out substantial money, the compassion and love we witnessed was worth the loss tenfold. Thank you for making my France trip more rewarding than I could have ever imagined. 

I arrived back in Orlando late on the 23rd. My baggage had been lost in transit (no biggie at this point), so I arrived back in the states carrying only an x-ray, three euros, and chapstick. When Tiff pulled up to the airport, I was standing on the curb in my pajamas with no baggage but one plastic baggie looking like a total lunatic – we laughed. I was happy to see her. 

Though I returned with literally no possessions, I brought back friendship, life lessons, new knowledge, and a reinforced pride for being an American. As American citizens, we have SO many privileges, conveniences, and freedoms that are way too easy to take for granted. I try to remind myself everyday how lucky I am, but when you’re in a serious bind thousands of miles fro home and the stars and stripes get you back to freedom safely in a heartbeat, you can’t help but be filled with gratitude. I took my medication the moment I got home - not sure if anyone has ever been so excited to take chemotherapy pills.

My belongings that were recovered on the beach were delivered to my house in Florida a few weeks later with everything accounted for except my cash, Macbook, GoPros, headlamp and Bob’s iPhone. HOWEVER, for those of you dying to know: Bob’s pants were recovered (bittersweet for a pants hater like me). 

My laptop, mentioned in a previous post, was the replacement for the new laptop I bought in December and spilled coffee on. I insured this new one when I bought it in January. Sadly, the insurance does not cover international theft. Hah.

The Beautiful Dom Granger with my recovered belongings!
Some other good info/helpful resources to note:

·      While chatting with the luggage assistant at the Orlando airport who was trying to locate my lost bags, I explained to her what happened and why I had to get on an earlier flight. She then said, “Oh dear, next time call Delta. We would have flown your medication to you from the US overnight. In emergency situations, we can move heaven and earth.” Apparently so long as it is a legitimate emergency, Delta can transport items (documents, medication, etc.) overnight, overseas, wherever, so long as it weighs under 1lb.

·      Keep all valuables (cash, ID) split up while you travel, and hide your things. Sometimes you still get burned but it's worth a shot.

·      If you’re in trouble overseas, contact your nearest American Embassy or Embassy consulate whom will advise and assist you – those of us from American are VERY VERY lucky. Please know and appreciate the resources being an American citizen offers you.

·      And lastly, though bad thing happen to good people even when you take precautions, please don’t lose faith in humanity. There are bad people everywhere. But for every bad person, there are hundreds, I’d like to think thousands, of good people who care.

·      Keep the faith and keep livin’!  

Just enjoying the ride,

Life, Love, Friendship.