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TANSTAAFL

Saturday, 30th June, 2001

They were ours for free, these two forty buck tickets.

No show of corporate altruism this, however, not in the slick manufactured world of Orlando. We had to satisfy various conditions, meaning that we had to get up in the morning, mosey on down to a local resort complex for a complimentary breakfast and suffer through a ninety minute sales pitch for timeshare apartments.

We were under no obligation to make a purchase, of course, but we were obligated to listen. At the end of it all, we would be free to say 'no thank you' and the tickets would be passed our way. All we had to do was listen.

It all sounded too good to be true. I ought, generally, to be far more cynical than I am, but I couldn't help but remember Robert Heinlein's catchphrase from 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' - TANSTAAFL or 'There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Lunch'. I'm not sure just what exactly I was expecting but it wasn't this. It seemed like half of Orlando had packed itself into one gigantic room to share a communal breakfast. There were more people here than at the breakfast buffet places. Of course $3.99 for all you can eat may be an incredibly cheap price to pay but it's still $3.99 more than zero. Such is the power of the word 'free'...

Of course that's why this timeshare company spends so much money to essentially bribe people to listen to them. But once they have you there the sales pitch is skilful. While Tracy and I were being confirmed of our eligibility, we hazarded guesses at what proportion of cynical people only interested in free tickets would end up caving in to be persuaded into spending their money. It seems that we were both very wrong - our charming saleswoman Michele informed us that the rate was one in four. I didn't believe that either until salesman after salesman leapt to his or her feet and announced yet another new member of the timeshare scheme. Even allowing for poetic licence it was still a lot of people.

Anyway, we enjoyed our free breakfast and listened to Michele's highly professional attempts to convince us that we wanted a timeshare apartment in Florida. Of course we gave the requisite ´┐Żno thank you' and collected our tickets, but the concept does now intrigue me far more than it did. Michele did her job well enough to make me believe that the concept is no longer a scam, however slick the operation is.

For the lovely Michele, so friendly, flexible and professional, yet so, so gullible: here are the lessons they obviously didn't teach you at high-powered salesman school. Waitresses don't earn $1,500 a week, even in Michigan. After all, they really don't allow you to striptease your way round Red Lobster. People who take three months to travel around the entire United States are not likely to be interested in a regular week's holiday a year in a timeshare apartment. And when some English guy keeps asking questions and probing for information and opinion, he may just be writing a book.

I didn't have to feign interest, but Michele didn't realise that my interest was general rather than personal. I was explaining my projected near future - my three months of travelling, my return home to England, my six year plan to acquire new skills, enhance existing ones, build my company and sort out the necessary visas to move me across the pond permanently - all accurate at the time. It meant that I'd rather wait until I knew what my situation was before committing any money to such a scheme as a timeshare - which wasn't quite accurate. In reality this was the way I could keep Michele hooked and find out just how hard sell this scheme could be.

She was hard sell without seeming to be, a very desirable professional skill, but she could have pushed far harder. When she couldn't persuade us out of our negative decision, her eyes lost just a little shimmer of vitality. Obviously Michele was working on commission and we'd sold her on the untrue assumption that she'd sold us.

She fetched a manager to cut the price for us and cut it she did: slashing the price down to below half of our original quotation. The manager pushed much harder, yet much quicker, but we were resolute in our decision. Then a third salesman was brought to offer us a try before you buy package. He was the quickest of all, obviously used to who will go for his spiel and who won't. He signed us off and we headed away to join the free ticket queue.

It was a fascinating morning for me, a glimpse into an alternative yet successful way of doing business. Timeshares to me meant the scams of yesteryear, where people sank money into buildings not yet built in countries that worked outside the consumer's means of redress. Now it seems that it's a multibillion dollar industry run with the slickness of an Amway convention by highpowered salesmen who still have the gift of the gab but who now have a valid product to hawk.

For Tracy it was a slow means of getting free stuff. She kept on at me under her breath that I should have just said no instead of exercising my jaw. She was absolutely right in that we'd have been out of there with our free tickets far sooner if only I'd kept my mouth shut, but I felt that those ninety minutes were fascinating and I was very glad to experience them. I saw it as yet more free entertainment.

And so back to the world outside the timeshares and the blazing sun. The heat in Florida is omnipresent: you simply can't get away from it, even when it rains. Our first few days were punctuated in the mid-afternoon by storms. We'd be wandering around Old Town and its myriad souvenir shops when the heavens would open and the rain would monsoon down to pound the parched earth like an overturned bucket.

We found shelter on the Friday in the Blue Max cafe, an eating establishment notable only for the inedibility of its food and the incompetence of its servers. We ended up tipping the barman who did far more to ensure that we got our food than the server. He was a new employee and already fed up with the way the place was run. Old Town was busy but the bar remained mostly empty, despite its prominent location and the continuing rain. Maybe everyone else was on their second day and thus knew better than us. Even the smooth veneer of Orlando has cracks.

It seems that, contrary to the illusion of Florida equalling sunshine, it's common in the hurricane season, from June to September, to have an afternoon storm. These particular afternoon storms just lasted a little longer than is usual, and the television news programmes later reported the worst storm of the year. The worst so far, of course, soon to be overtaken the day we floated down to Siesta Key. Some local areas were flooded on Saturday, 15th July and I enjoyed anticipating where the lightning would flash next.

Storm or no storm, the heat remains. Sometimes the storms are electrical, with the roar thunder and the dance of lightning up and down the street, but the rain stays away. More often they simply don't last. The heat does.

Except for the timeshare day, we were up early or not so early for breakfast at one of a wealth of all you can eat breakfast buffets. Ponderosa Steakhouse, Golden Corral, Western Sizzler - the names would be different, along with the selections, but the concept was identical and the price consistently and incredibly cheap. Hotel lobbies are good places to find a plethora of discount vouchers too to make the price even more of a surreal experience.

There's something about the buffet places that is American distilled down to its pure essence. The quality is good enough, but the key is quantity combined with value. Cooked breakfast bars, salad bars, fruit bars, dessert bars... Golden Corral even has ice cream and M&Ms included in the pittance of a price. Eat all you like until you feel bloated and full enough to not want to eat for the rest of the day, then waddle out to the car which by now will be hot enough to give you a tan all by itself.

I peoplewatched at these places, seeing plenty of tourists trying to come to terms with the very concept itself. Mothers would tell their children, 'No, you've had enough!' but none would be American. There were women so big that they literally had trouble navigating through the doors, all the while their waistbands fighting a losing battle with the force of gravity. I saw one pregnant woman on her eighth plate of cooked food and still going strong when we left. Maybe she wasn't pregnant after all; maybe she'd be just giving birth to her breakfast later.

I felt bloated on my four or five courses and made a vow that when I finally move over the pond, I'll reserve such places for the joy of educating tourists. When they ask about the American Way, I'll take them to Golden Corral.

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