It was the summer of 2000, and I rode a night train from Rome to Nice. The International Film Festival was going on in Cannes, and the train was bustling with excitement. The night rail car consisted of two bunk beds in a tiny space, and the woman bunked above me was heading to the film festival. We were a bunch of strangers nestled together, men and women, speaking in our best attempts at other’s languages. It was just fun.
We, my brother, a friend, and I, arrived in Nice and went to the ATM for some cash, French francs. We had originally flown into Paris, had retrieved some francs, and had a little left over. Exchange rates were high, so we didn’t exchange them into German marks, Czech crowns, or Italian liras throughout our backpacking trip in Europe.
So…in Nice, France…the ATM did not work.
None of our debit cards worked.
We tried two other ATMs.
We thought something was wrong with our debit cards. They’d been working for our whole trip. We didn’t understand what was wrong.
We met a French man who explained the newly introduced Euro had basically crashed compared to the global currency market. In order to preserve the financial markets of Europe, all banks had been closed, including ATMs.
We pooled together all our francs. We had enough for one night at a youth hostel for the three of us. We had a few granola bars and snacks. We figured we could make it through the day.
The next day, no banks, no ATMs, and no money. Maybe one granola bar left each.
We were hungry.
This was before cell phones, and ATMs were a pretty new thing. It was an adventure getting different currencies out of ATMs all over Europe. It was so exciting, but suddenly it wasn’t fun anymore.
We were literally stranded in Nice, France. Our flight home left in two days from Paris. We didn’t even have enough money to make it to the train station.
The youth hostel let us stay an additional night only because my brother’s debit card had a fancy new credit card option. They held the card to run once the banks came back up. However, if this new feature on his card didn’t work when the banks came up, we were out the next night.
We decided we’d sleep on the streets if we had to. And after one more day of hunger, we’d start begging.
The banks came up. His card worked. Whew!
Still, no ATMs. No drawing of cash allowed. Had a place to sleep but still hungry.
Again, my brother’s fancy new card had a cash advance option against the credit card. The banks were allowed to use that to give us cash, since it was a credit and not a debit withdrawal.
Serious close call!
We ate some French steak and eggs (which is basically a hamburger patty and eggs), gelato, and everything else we could get our hands on.
We made it to the train station. Got to Paris and flew home.
It’s amazing how fast you can become homeless. I call it the rule of three. You have three big hurdles and that’s it.
1. Foreign country meant no relatives/friends to stay with
2. Little cash from traveling from one country to the next
3. Banks shut down
That was it. So simple.
And that’s why I always recommend carrying some local currency when traveling!