What price a good travel story?

Last updated 05:00 10/09/2013

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Many years ago, when I lived in New York, an acquaintance from Australia called me (these were the days before email) and asked me if I'd help her brother, who'd been mugged in Times Square.

I really didn't know either of them at all but I knew how scary the city could be for some, so I gave him a call at his hotel.

He was a bit shaken, but not hurt, and, like a good sport, making the most of it.

In fact, he hadn't been attacked, but had fallen for a scam that had fleeced him of about $1000. "Oh, well," he said, putting a positive spin on it, "It'll make a good story when I get home."

I recall being silently furious with him for being so cavalier about an amount of money that would have been extremely useful to me at the time, but now I look back on it, I think, "Yes, a good story you can tell over and over again over the years is probably worth about 1000 bucks."

These days, I find myself listening to many tales of travel woes, and I always answer, "but it makes a good story".

And it's true. There's only a limited amount of attention you can give to someone who returns from holidays boasting of perfect weather, delicious meals and fabulous nightlife.

But throw in a disaster or racy escapade and they've got me hooked.

"Story" is the buzzword of the moment. Everyone is telling stories, from bloggers to politicians.

If you don't have a "story", you're not a person, it seems. Even advertising isn't advertising any more but "storytelling".

Luckily, we travellers have plenty of the real things stored away for those occasions when we're expected to sing for our suppers.

One of my best travel stories happened to a naive 24-year-old version of myself.

Years ago, visiting Florence alone, I was wandering through the Uffizi Gallery when one of the guards, like a character out of some weird European art-house movie, called me over with a wriggling of his finger.

"Lady," he said, when I'd come into whispering range. "You want to see some etchings?"

Actually, what he whispered was, "Do you want to see some Michelangelos?" but you get the gist.

They were, he explained in clumsy English, part of the collection that no one was allowed to see, except with special letters of permission.

But he had the key and he could show me.

So I said OK.

I admit that when he took me behind a curtain into a deserted passage I had some misgivings and even more of them as we went through a number of old doors that he would lock behind him with a big key.

But, true to his word, behind the last door was an extraordinary room, about two storeys high, with soaring, vaulted ceilings and shelves built right up to them, holding ancient portfolios that I could see were full of yellowing paper.

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He instructed me to sit at a table and set about collecting an armful of folders, which he placed in front of me.

He opened the first proudly. It was full of drawings by old masters.

Michelangelo. Raphael. Leonardo. I was sitting there, without white gloves, handling this priceless work.

Then the guard explained he would leave me there for a couple of hours to look. It occurred to me I could probably roll a couple of the drawings up and put them in my shoulder bag and the guard wouldn't know or care.

I contemplated the moral implications of this.

But then the guard started kissing me on the cheek. I pushed him away. Not discouraged, he told me to stay where I was, he'd be back soon.

At last it occurred to me that I might be locked in there for hours, maybe days, until he returned, perhaps with friends, and had his way with me.

Luckily, he wasn't very bright, and when I told him I had friends waiting outside and I'd just need to go out and tell them I'd be a while, he let me out, expecting me to return.

I hotfooted it out of the building like Usain Bolt, who probably hadn't been born then.

Yes, it's a good story against myself and I've probably told it ad nauseum over the years.

But I still think of all those priceless old drawings I never got to handle.

And wonder - was a good story worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars I could have made from the world's easiest art heist?

Do you have a good story to share? Leave a comment below.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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