Well, now that just doesn’t make any sense

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I was really excited about going to Hong Kong, especially during the Mid Autumn Festival.  It’s like Thanksgiving and New Year’s wrapped into a single holiday.  Basically, everyone takes time off (China regulates that) and visits family, goes on holiday and generally just has a nice, relaxing time off.  They have special foods for it, too, and there are always things going on to help celebrate.

Before I even got to HK, I was reading up on things to do there and came across a listing for a huge party and celebration that was set to take place in Victoria Park, one of the largest and certainly the most popular park in the city.  It happened to be while I was going to be there, so I made a note of it, so that I could attend.

I was really excited for this.  I love going to places and seeing and / or participating in local traditions, and this seemed like it was going to be a great one!  In fact, the information page that I saw touted it as one of the largest celebrations of the entire festival.  So, as you can imagine, I had high hopes.

I happened to run into another foreigner (an American) while I was wandering around earlier that day and, since that was a rarity in HK for some random reason, the two of us decided to get together later that night to go to dinner and generally just hang out after the humidity settled down to a nice, tolerable swelter, rather than an out-and-out sauna.

We had already wandered around one of the larger outdoor street markets, which was fun, albeit filled with cheaply-made stuff that I didn’t want to waste my money on, so we decided to go to the festival in the park and then grab some dinner.  We took  a cab to the park and followed a procession of what seemed like millions of people headed to what we assumed would be the celebration.

Once we got there, well . . . what can I say?  When in Malta, there is rarely a night when there isn’t a festival celebration of some kind and those parties are rowdy, loud and last into the wee hours, filled with fun, food and fireworks.  In Italy on New Year’s Eve, the party in Venice spread across the entire city, with music and lights and people shouting and having a great time.  In HK for the Mid Autumn Festival celebration in Victoria Park, there was . . um . . well, there were some lovely lanterns hanging up in the trees.  There were also some random lit-up giant cartoon characters that everyone was taking photos with, but that was about it.  Really.  A couple of places to get some questionable food and really, both of us were a little disappointed.

But the strangest thing was yet to come.  We hung around and wandered, taking photos, for about 30 minutes, when we started to hear music swelling a little bit. We saw some people start to form a circle around the source of the music, so naturally, we decided to join them.  Then we looked at each other.  And looked at the crowd, and then the source of the music, and then each other again.

Now, when you think of China, of HK and of Asia in general, and especially when you think of music, what comes to mind?  That strange Chinese Opera singing that is so quintessential?  Possibly, K-Pop?  Well, yes, that’s what I think that the two of us really thought of.

Here, though, we had not any of that.  What we had was – that’s right – bagpipes!  A full-on, loud, traditional bagpipe band – complete with kilts!  And everyone was watching them, clapping, taking photos, swaying to the “beat.”  Huh?  Okay, I get it – kinda.  HK was a part of Britain up until just a decade or so ago.  But still – this wasn’t a British festival that we were celebrating here – this was a Chinese Mid Autumn Festival.

Yeah.  I don’t get it.  And were they even British-looking people playing those bagpipes?  Nope.  Chinese / HK people.  Interesting.  And the strangest part of all was that, after the grand build up in the music, instead of a great crescendo that ends in a ‘Ode To Joy’ sort-of ending, it basically just waned and eventually died down.  No grand finale, no ending.  No sending up of lanterns or fireworks.

And in minutes, everyone had started to walk away.  Nothing left.  No remnants even that such an event took place.  Just a bunch of people walking to dinner, or to home, or somewhere else.  So strange.

I feel like I should go back there just to see if that same thing happens again.  If they have something more up their sleeve if I stay another day.  If there is a secret, hidden celebration that they don’t want foreigners to witness that is far more interesting.  It has happened to me before (see:  New Year’s Eve in Venice on Giudecca).  Just interesting . .  .


The Best Bedroom in Gatwick Airport

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I don’t even remember whether I was coming or going at this point.  Frankly, a lot of the time, I just know that I am tired, probably have make-up smudges if I have any make-up left on me at all, and clothes that are stale-smelling (unless they smell of the person next to me from the last flight; those are the worst).

Now, I have been to Gatwick on countless occasions and might very well be the only person in the world that prefers it to Heathrow for a layover.  I get it, Heathrow is huge and has a lot of very good amenities.  It’s gotten even better since I first swept through there almost two decades ago now.  However, it’s *busy*.  And I mean that in a very there’s-no-space-to-breathe kind of a way.  Sure, there are places to grab something more than a burger to eat and others to grab a nice drink or peruse the latest in travel pillows or stock up on trial-sized liquids, like toothpaste.  But what Heathrow lacks is a decent place to sleep.

And if there is one thing that a frequent traveler needs, it’s a decent place to sleep.

Gatwick has that.  Actually, it doesn’t really have a place to sleep, but when it comes to traveling, I like to think that I can MacGyver things with the best of them.  And it’s at Gatwick that, many years ago, I did my best work.

You see, this one particular time, I happened to be stuck on an overnight layover and as most people in their early adulthood, I didn’t really have the money to shell out for a decent hotel room in one of the over-priced places near the airport.  So instead, I opted to sleep in the airport itself.  I had done it before in other airports, but this time, I found myself stuck in Gatwick overnight with three other Americans – the annoying kind.  The ones that are loud, brash, can’t shut up and seem to think that everyone else within a ten-mile radius needs to be privy to their conversation.  I wanted to scream.

You see, we were forced to be inside one giant room, with an enormous vaulted ceiling and no real chairs.  I mean, there were chairs, but they all had those permanent armrests that meant that you couldn’t stretch out, so really, there weren’t comfortable places to sit and sleep. So all of us were on the floor, resting up against one of the large window walls.  No, the guy that was there by himself – he was quiet enough. The two other girls, though.  Man.  China could hear their conversation.  I was so tired, too.  I couldn’t even see straight anymore and I had a really early flight and just wanted to nap.  I asked them if they could keep it down, but their reaction was to tell me that it was their right to be able to talk all night.  Yup, they were *those* Americans.  The ones that I avoid at all costs.  The ones that opt for Starbucks over the hundreds of local cafes that exist and spend their time complaining that their aren’t hamburgers on the menus in every restaurant in France.  Those.

I am not one of those.  I needed to get away.  I needed to sleep.  I needed an escape from them.

I grabbed my large suitcase and my carry-on bag and started to try to find some place that wasn’t within the range of their conversation detailing the issues with finding a clean bathroom in London.  Like I cared.

As I walked by a set of bathrooms, I noticed that one was labeled “family room.”  I hadn’t noticed that one before during the other times that I was in this airport, so I decided to see what it was like.  I mean, it was about 1am at this point, so how many families would really be in need of something like this?  I opened the door to find a large – and I mean huge – bathroom.  An idea struck me.

I entered the bathroom, closed the door and realized that it had two locks.  Two locks!  This meant that the odds of anyone being able to get into this room without my knowledge (like, if I accidentally feel asleep or something) would be minimal at best.  I decided to MacGyver this into a bedroom for the night.  I opened my suitcase so that the lid of it rested up against the door and double-checked to make sure that both locks were in place.  I then rearranged my clothes, so that the softest ones were on the top.  I tested it out by sitting in it and leaning up against the interior of the lid that was up against the door.  It worked!!!  It actually felt something akin to a bed!

I quickly prayed that this would work – set my travel alarm (yeah, this was way back when people used those things; before all of our phones had that feature in them – heck, this was before cell phones were popular!) – and turned out the lights.  And I promptly fell asleep.  The “family room” was far enough away from the chatty girls that I couldn’t hear them and the security of the dual locking door allowed me to relax a little bit more and actually sleep.

Now, mind you, my flight was very early in the morning, so it wasn’t as if I got eight hours of bliss or anything.  And really, no matter how comfortable it was, it was still me sleeping inside of an open suitcase on the floor of an airport bathroom.  *But* it was at least four hours of good, solid sleep, which is more than I can say for many other airport / train depot / bus depot sleeping experiences that I have had in my life.

In fact, it was so good that I did it again the next two times that I happened to be passing through.  It was the best thing that I ever engineered for the purposes of a nap.  And I would do it again if I had the chance.  I don’t care if there is a family in need of the “family room.”  Sometimes a girl just needs to sleep, okay?

So, if you’re in Gatwick and in need of a nap and you wander by a room with a sign on the side saying “family room,” check it out.  You might have the same experience that I had.  you’re welcome.


No Such Thing as Quiet in Taipei

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There is no such thing as quiet in Taipei.  As one of the most densely populated cities on earth, you cannot help but hear and feel the noise all around you constantly.  It’s on the main streets with the thousands of cars and ubiquitous scooters that seem to be the preferred mode of transportation under the age of 80.  It’s on the side streets and in the little corridors that you find lining the major roads, as you listen to the shopkeepers talk to one another, shout at potential customers and taut their wares.  You can butchers hacking up everything from cows to chickens, hanging the heads and necks of the latter on hooks for display.  You can hear the women haggling on prices for everything from flowers to knickers.  You can hear children playing in the fields of the schools all around.  And you can hear it in the few parks and other green areas in the city – because with that many people, animals, cars and more, sound is everywhere.

I even noticed it in my hotel room.  I had to keep the television on a lot, or I could hear the outside world constantly.  True, my hotel was located on a major road, but even still, the sound – the noise – was just astonishingly constant.  At night, I wore earplugs (the ones that the *really* nice Korean Air attendants kindly gave me on the flight over) to shut out some of the sound, but it was never quiet.

I really didn’t mind that level of constant sound, mind you.  In fact, that was a large part of experiencing Taipei.  It’s part of what makes it what it is and what drew me to it.  Sound like that denotes a city that is constantly shifting and changing and if you don’t catch it now, or you blink, it will change and you will never get to see it like that again.  Nor will you ever get to hear it like that again.  So, I went into it knowing and enjoying that experience – albeit slightly muted when I needed to sleep.

Flash forward, though, to my final day in Taiwan.  The previous day (more on that later, I am sure) I had been in the mountains nearby the city to a temple and the tea plantations and had experienced something close to quiet, but not quite.  The birds sang loudly and there was a little dog that wanted to be my friend and I could hear him jingle behind me for a long while.

This final day, though, I craved quiet.  I craved calm.  I craved something other than deep city life – and sound.  I had heard that Taiwan was well known for its hot springs and one of the few things that I had marked in my guidebook before leaving (why do I always buy them and rarely really use them?) was a listing of a nearby suburb and accompanying hotels and resorts where I could partake in a hot spring bath.  Ostensibly with the locals.  I had made sure to pack my bikini just for that reason and had even sent myself on a wild goose catch to find (out of season in September in Colorado, it turns out) a cheap pair of flip flops, so that I could walk around the bathing area comfortably.

However, by this point in the trip, I was a little tired, still likely jet-lagged and definitely not interested in carrying more than necessary.  Couple that with the fact that when I left in the morning it was actually chilly and I had run back into the hotel not once, not twice, but three times (please tell me that I am not the only one that has done that!) to grab first my jacket, then mu umbrella and finally a pair of jeans (just in case; although I had avoided them due to the unrelenting, horrible humidity in Taiwan and Hong Kong).  Did I remember the bikini?  Nope.  How about the flip flops?  Nope.  Because, see, that would have been easy, simple, smart and worthwhile.  And we really can’t have that all the time, can we?  Of course, I didn’t notice that until *after* i arrived (two hours later) in the suburb and was already off of the train.

Well, I still had my guide and fortunately enough, I had also accidentally run into a fluent English speaker while asking at the tourist counter at the train station where I could go for the hot springs.  This kind gentleman (thank you, wherever you are) walked me in the right direction and then asked me where I wanted to go.  Finally realizing that I didn’t have anything to wear and not seeing any nearby shops where I could get anything to fit me, I quickly scanned the book and saw a listing for a five-star resort offering “individual bathing rooms.”  This was the answer!  Great!  Where is that, I asked.  Well, it’s far up that hill, replied the gentleman.  It was now *very* hot and humid.  I had long ago given up on make-up, doing my hair or looking like anything other than something that the cat dragged in.  And if I was going to just be sitting in a bath, then you know what?  Who cares, let’s start walking and if I see a cab, I will take it.

Odds of find a cab in Taipei – 100%; you can’t spit without finding eight of them.  Odds of finding one in this place?  Well, turns out, it’s about 0%.  So fine, I can walk.  I love walking.

By the time that I get to the resort, it’s half an hour later, up hill all the freakin’ way, and by uphill I mean that at one point I wanted to invest in some rope and hooks to help.  But, too late.  I was there.  The gentleman had warned me that it was expensive, but that’s all relative, isn’t it?  Turns out, expensive in Taiwan is about $9 US for an hour of total peace and solitude.  Yup.  I can do that.  Sign me up.

I walked in (I can’t even imagine what the impeccably-dressed women tending the front counter must have thought of me) and pointed to the sign that cheerfully said in English “Private Bath Rooms Here.”  And that’s what I did.  I paid in cash, which the woman helping me must have thought was strange, given the look on her face.  But she led me back to an available room (#13, which I usually don’t find lucky and had a little trouble with at first, but at this point, why fight it?) and opened the door, reminding me that I could stay as long as I wanted and just pay the extra when I left.

Inside – wow.  WOW!  I mean, wow.  Quiet.  I had’t heard *nothing* in days!  Not for a week!  And in here, it was totally quiet.  It was dark, with stone floors and an enormous stone bath.  Green stone.  Beautiful.  On the side were robes, shoes, shampoo, combs – everything that you would need.  In the bath, she had turned on the hot springs and then the cold water to balance the heat and set out some towels for me, telling me that it was all part of the price.  I had this whole silent world all to myself.  This was unbelievable.

I stripped and took a deep breath.  These hot springs weren’t strong-smelling like others in the area (sulfur; eew).  Instead, it smelled of nothing.  And I heard only the sound of the water pouring into the tub.

Then I spent the next hour sitting.  Just sitting.  Soaking in the hot water, pouring it over me.  Just sitting again.  Not thinking, but practicing mindful meditation.  The type where you concentrate solely on being in the moment.  I made shapes in the water with my hands and relished the ripples that that made and the light reflecting over it and under it.  I just was.  For the first time in a *very* long time, I just was.

An hour later, I climbed out, changed back into my now-somewhat-dry clothes (eew, back to sweating buckets) and walked out of the hotel and back into the punishing heat and humidity of the afternoon.  And I was okay with that.  I was.  I had just spent the best $9 of my life to just *be* and not think, not move, not work, not read, not talk.  Just be.

Like hearing the sounds of the fast-changing city of Taipei or Macau or Hong Kong, I will never be able to replicate that experience.  But forever, or as long as I have a memory, I will be able to relive it in my mind and have a new “happy place” whenever I need a calming moment and a time to just be.

And yes, having come back just a couple of weeks ago, I have already gone there in my head many, many times.

What To Do When the Food is Terrible

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As I mentioned in a post a little while ago, I recently went on a very secretive trip for a week.  I didn’t want to tell anyone because I genuinely didn’t want to feel obligated to bring things back for people or see various things that people think are a “must see.”  Instead, as this was a bit of a gift, trip-wise (I had a bunch of vacation time at work that I had to use before I lost it), I wanted to just go somewhere and have a nice, relaxing trip all by myself and just do whatever came to my mind, whether that meant sitting in a cafe all day every day, or renting a car and travelling all over the country.  Well, I decided to go to Amsterdam.  I had been through their airport countless times, as it’s usually the airport through which I have to travel in order to get to other destinations in Europe.  And over the years, I have seen pretty much all that there is to see in the airport, form the kiosks to the snack shops to pretty much every single bathroom.  So, I figured that it was about time to just stop by and actually the city to which the airport was attached.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but if you are like me, then you probably go to a place with at least some preconceived notions about it.  That could be something as simple as assuming that people in Spanish might not speak English on a reliable basis, to something more intriguing, such as wondering whether people in China wear pants.  No seriously, someone once asked me that question once.  So it was with me and Amsterdam.  Now, admittedly, I came to have this particular assumption based on prior experiences with travelling to countries that surround the Netherlands, including Belgium, Germany and France.  I have been now to all of those countries – Germany, several times – and have enjoyed the abundant and flavorful food that each of these countries has to offer.  Now, I know that Germany does have a lot of “heavy” foods, like bratwurst and potato dumplings, but I am part German, so I was used to these foods and still really enjoy them, albeit on a rare occasion.  France, well, if you don’t know how good the food in France is, just go there.  You will melt just staring at the breads on offer at the local boulangerie.  That’s not even mentioning the cheese, the wine, the pastries, the charcuterie and all of the other things that they are known for.  And Belgium, although known for its chocolate and beer, does a lot of other things very well, too, and shouldn’t be overlooked for it’s savory tarts and sandwiches.

Now, will all of that background in my memory, I had high hopes for the food in Amsterdam.  So it is with those memories in mind that I ask this completely honest question:  How is it that a country with miles of coastline, surrounded by three food-loving countries puts out what can only be described as spackle?  No, really.  I think that rice cakes might actually taste better than the food that I had in Amsterdam.  And that isn’t the tourist row version of Dutch food, either.  I make it a point to shop and eat from the supermarkets whenever I travel abroad, and this was certainly no exception. I tried some of the street foods, as well as what was in the supermarkets and it was all basically the same.  The traditional Dutch foods were just so bland that I could barely stand them.  And I was hard-pressed to find any decent seafood anywhere.

So, back to the title of this post:  What to do?  Well, you focus on the few things that the Dutch do well.  And I want to emphasize this especially, since I have eaten over 50 types of cheese that the French make while staying in Paris a few years ago.  The Dutch to two things (okay, if you count Genever, then three) *very* well:  Cheese and beer.  And I cannot understate the amazing array of cheese and beer that this country produces, nor the knowledge that the local Dutch have of each.  When I asked people at the supermarket which cheeses to try, they asked me “Do you prefer old or new?”  What?  This is a question that you would never hear here in the US.  Americans have just no concept of decent cheese.  And I blame Kraft for that.  But I digress.  Each day I made it a point to try at least two or three of their cheeses and never once was I disappointed.  Some were firm and pungent, others soft and creamy and more like Swiss.  All of them delectable.  Not one cheese did I try that I would not happily eat to my dying day.

And the beer.  Well, this is coming from a person that barely drinks a glass of any alcohol more than once every six months.  I tried a real Heineken at their brewery on the very first day and amazingly, liked it!  And I am not normally much of a beer person.  And then, every night thereafter, I spent at a local (apparently, the third oldest) pub / bar in the Spui district that made their own micro beers.  And each one, from the blond, to the stout, was just superb.  Rich, flavorful, not filling like they would sit as a brick in your stomach, but light and aromatic.  And each one in their own glass, too.  I would just sit there, nursing one every night (again, I am a lightweight, so I had to limit myself to one, or I will be legless and likely not be able to make it back to my hotel).  I was just in awe.

So, the answer is:  For a week, anyone, especially me, can survive on good cheese and beer.  And do so quite happily. And frankly, looking back on it, even if their other food never really gets any better, I would happily live in Amsterdam for the rest of my life and eat nothing but cheese and drink a beer every night.  And I would die a happy person.  Amsterdam, you might want to just take some notes from your neighbors in Europe, but in the meantime, never stop making your cheese and beer!!!

I Blame Victoria’s Secret for This…

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I don’t really know how I started thinking about this experience, but it was definitely one of the more unusual (not to say that any of my experiences in Papua New Guinea were anything like usual) experiences that I had while I was in PNG.  Now, I think that I have mentioned before that I did not fit into the culture there, not just for the fact that I didn’t speak more than a handful of words of their working language (Pidgin), nor the fact that I was at least a head taller than everyone, but more for the fact that I was stark white and covered head to toe in clothes to try to keep the lobster burns away (yeah, I basically go from white to lobster in a matter of minutes, and then back to white again, without any hope of a tan of any kind).  I smelled, to, have I mentioned that?  Smell badly?  Well, I suppose that depends on what you call “bad.”  You see, I was already taking anti-malarial medication, but the mosquitoes were just relentless there in the humidity and all of the standing water everywhere.  So, in order to take extra precautions, I basically bathed in repellent.  And I don’t mean the lovely, new coconut or lime-scented versions of repellent that exist today.  No, I mean, DDT.  That’s right.  The really stinky, smelly repellent that only those in desperate need of a way to get rid of mosquitoes resorts to.  Thanks, Dad. So, I smelled.  But, I will say this:  I never got more than a handful of bites the entire time that I was there.  So I really do thank you, Dad.  That was perhaps the most helpful piece of advice (“Bring DDT!”) that gave me before I left.  Well, that and remembering to also bring along cortizone for those few bites that I did get.

Anyway, on to the rest of the story (what you thought that was it?). . . So, i stood out, is what I am trying to say.  And that goes for pretty much everything about me.  Right down to my knickers (that’s underwear to those of you not of the UK persuasion).  Thanks to a long-standing and profound addiction to Victoria’s Secret for bras and knickers, I was the proud owner of over thirty pairs of *extremely* floraly, frilly, colorful knickers – that’s right, everything from neon pink to green lace coupled with bright blue flowers.  Now, why does that matter, you ask?  Don’t you normally wear clothes over you knickers?  Why yes, yes you do.  However, everyone, no matter how many pairs they own or bother to bring on an extended visit to a remote area in the middle of the South Pacific, will eventually need to wash them.

But, I wouldn’t be the one washing them.  No.  You see, I was (at the time of this event) staying at a hotel on Wewak on our way to the small island on which we would be living for a few weeks.  The rains and the delay in the delivery of our equipment (see: prior stories involving the vanilla trade in PNG) caused a further delay in journey to Koil and in the meantime, I had run out of clean knickers. I asked Glenn where I could take them to wash (I was presuming that Wewak had a laundromat -silly me), and he just told me to leave them for the hotel staff to clean.  I couldn’t quite explain to this fifty-plus year-old man how leaving my underthings in the hands of unknown staffers worried me, given my previous experiences with the local people thinking that I was already quite far removed from their reality, if not Reality in general.  Instead, I asked him if it might not be possible, then, to take Herman (one of the PNG people that helped us on our trip and regularly worked as a translator / facilitator for Glenn on his trips here) and go to the “supermarket” (or at least, what they had to serve as one) and purchase some clothing soap that I had seen on their local TV shows and then wash my clothes in the hotel’s bathroom.  No.  He would have none of it.  That would be taken very badly and would essentially, apparently, signal to the staff and thus all of the local people of Wewak, that we thought that they were inept and incapable of even the most basic of tasks:  washing clothes.

So, defeated, I left my clothes in their hands.  Now, I should mention at this point that at the time, I was still under the somewhat naive presumption that Wewak, and PNG in general, possessed things that I took for granted, like can openers, electricity and, of course, washing machines.  I assumed that the staff would simply take my clothes, bring them to a washing machine, wash them, put them in a dryer and then bring them back to me.  I had known that such a procedure happened every day in hotels around the world, from Norway to Mexico.  Apparently, that’s not what happens in PNG.  And I found out the hard way; or rather, the loud way.

The next day, while trying to pass the time by talking to Glenn about his experiences in the South Pacific over the years (remember, no electricity most of them time, only one TV channel in a language you don’t understand and nothing else to do means that there is a *lot* of time to pass every day), I suddenly heard some kids in the distance giggling.  At first, I thought that it was coming from the road across from the hotel that led down to a beach.  I had heard kids there before, but this time, the laughing and giggling was louder and it was punctuated by adults giggling and talking loudly.  Again, I couldn’t understand much, but it sounded like they were having a grand old time somewhere.  Well, given that there wasn’t much else going on, Glenn and I decided to see what was going on that was clearly so funny.

What was it?  Well, let’s just say that Victoria has one less secret now.  You see, hanging from a wire across two tree stumps and waving in the slight breeze, with the sunlight shining off of them and highlighting their beautiful colorful decorations, were my knickers and bras, slowly drying.  Yup.  About ten of them, if my memory serves.  And around them were no fewer than five young children, a couple of teens and the entire hotel staff laughing and pointing at them.  And it wasn’t as if I could pretend that anyone else had left those to be washed.  Nope.  Those knickers clearly belonged to the strange, smelly, White Woman.

Now, I suppose that, on the plus side, at least it was just Glenn and I that witnessed that mortifying site and have escaped the island to remember and pass along the story.  But frankly, I blush even just thinking about it, and dread that one day, randomly (as things like this often occur) I will encounter one of those kids, now grown, that was laughing so merrily at my expense, and remember me and start laughing all over again.

Lesson learned:  Next time, listen to my mother and shop at Macy’s, where the prices are low and the knickers are all plain.

Why do you do it?

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It’s been awhile since I posted anything here, and for anything this is interested, for that I deeply apologize.  I haven’t honestly been really into showing my feelings about travel for a while  now and for a very good reason (or twenty).  Aside from the fact that I have been incredibly busy with my day-job and have been doing a lot of baking, I have been in a real mental hard place for me, hence the topic of this post.

Why do you travel?  Really, why do you do it?  Do you enjoy seeing the sites or trying all of the different and unique foods that you find?  Do you collect things, like clothes or books or antiques?  Do you just love to have (collect?) new experiences and capture new memories that only you and you alone will ever fully appreciate?

I used to think that I travelled more for the sake of it than anything else, and I think that, some part of me feels that way.  I travel as often as I can; as much as time and money will allow.  I used to think that, if I could, I would travel all the time, just collecting those experiences that no one else will ever have.  Like getting lost in Helsinki and walking into a suburb and on the way home, accidentally finding their amazing amusement park and riding on the Ferris wheel.  Or being the first white woman to set foot on a small island in the South Pacific and learn what it’s like to really be the odd one out, in every sense of the word.

As I get older, though, I realize more and more that those really aren’t the reasons that I travel.  Here’s the real reason, truly shown to me as I started to cry (in public) reading a passage in a book from a woman much like me, who was in search of the same thing:

I travel because I am looking for my home.  My real home.  Not that I don’t like the place that I live.  I love my little condo.  It’s a perfect size and a real haven for me (when the dog downstairs isn’t barking, that is).  I live very near to my parents, with whom I am very close, and I really treasure that.  But more and more, I realize that I am not meant to live here; that this isn’t my real home.  I think that that explains, more than anything else, why I haven’t dated anyone since I moved back to the US from Europe the last time.  I just don’t get American guys.  Or most Americans, for that matter.  Why?  I don’t fully know, but I just feel like the odd one out and as an outsider here.  I want to sit at a sidewalk cafe in the evenings with friends, and people here don’t really do that.  I want to go out and drink for the conversations with companions that happens, and Americans haven’t learned how to do that yet.  I don’t understand baseball caps, tennis shows, shouting at waiters or the need to photograph, tweet and post to facebook every single aspect of one’s life.

I don’t know why people don’t go out, but rather, stay at home, binge-watching shows on Netflix or On Demand.  I get lonely, because no one but my parents wants to go to the museums and then to a cafe and discuss what was on display.  No one wants to just take a leisurely time at a meal.  Talking.  Eating.  Enjoying the atmosphere.  That doesn’t happen here.  Buildings are too new.  People have to drive everywhere.  People, especially where I live, aren’t interested in meeting people and making new friends.  Not after high school or possibly college.  They will be nice to you, but never will that really translate into an invitation to join them for a meal or a trip to a movie or anything like that.

And more than that, there is something singularly intangible that I cannot even put into words, but that makes me cry in the US and smile broadly in Europe.  Call it atmosphere, call it whatever you will, but whenever I am in Europe I just become lighter.  Almost another person.  I stop more.  And I mean that in the sense that I don’t feel the incessant need to always be *doing* something.  No.  Instead, I stop.  I have a coffee at a cafe or a glass of wine somewhere and just watch the world.  Or I talk to people.  And there, they not only talk back, they start conversations, invite me to their homes or out with their friends or even into the backs of their restaurants to teach me to make real dumplings, in the case of my time in Shanghai, China.

I travel because I want to find the place where I really belong.  The place where I just naturally feel comfortable.  Peaceful.  Content.  Where people want to be my friends as much I want to be theirs.  The place where I would be happy to just ‘be.’

I have come very close on a number of occasions.  Germany was the first, when I visited my brother while he we stationed there.  Austria was even closer.  I spent a few days in Vienna, and on accident I had a last-minute issue that prevented me from going back to Hungary, so instead went back to Vienna and never regretted it.  Ireland was close, but somehow, not as much as Norway.  There was just a sense of total ease that I felt in these places.  Even Paris, not speaking any French or even really knowing the true Parisian culture, I felt it closely, though I knew all along that it wasn’t *quite* the place for me.  Close, but just not quite.

In about a week, I am taking another trip.  I have chosen to keep it a secret to everyone bu my parents and two trusted friends, so forgive me for not mentioning it here.  I will say this, though.  I feel as though I am getting messages from the universe that this might be “it.”  The one.  I don’t want to jinx it, and I don’t really want to get my hopes up, at least any more than they already are.  But at night, and when I am having a rough day at work, I let myself say “maybe” a few times, and I dream.  Maybe I will meet a friend that I can stay in contact with.  Maybe I will meet someone “special” as my mother and grandmother would say.

Maybe I will, this time, not use my return ticket.  Maybe I will, but immediately file for a visa.  Or maybe this isn’t it, and I will check it off my list and start trying to find time and money to make another trip somewhere else to try it again; getting ever closer each time until I finally find it; sigh to myself, and make that call to my parents letting them know that I won’t be needing them to come and fetch me from the airport.

For anyone out there reading this – especially those that might feel the same way – wish me good luck.  And I wish all of you out there in the same position the same good luck.  I hope that we all manage to find our respective homes, wherever they may be.

Whose Lefse Reigns Supreme?


At this time of year, everyone has a craving for a food that they associate with the holidays, whichever holiday you celebrate.  Some people crave latkes, other people crave their grandmother’s peirogi.  What do I crave?  Lefse.  For the uninitiated, lefse is like the Norwegian version of a tortilla, though usually they are used in a sweet application, not a savory one.  Made out of riced potatoes (strong hands and wrists are required!) or mashed potato flakes, if you are lazy or in a place where you don’t have a ricer, they form the basis of one of my favorite treats during the Christmas season.  Some people take them with loads of butter, others with cinnamon and sugar, some with all three.  Me?  I like them served warm with a healthy dose of cinnamon and maybe a little light coating of sugar.  Or sometimes, for breakfast, dunked in maple syrup (that must be the American in me).  The sad part is that I don’t have the space, the money or the tools that I need to make them properly, so I am generally reduced to enjoying them only during a few wonderful weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  But then, I suppose that that ensures that they remain special, right?

Now, I have been eating lefse for as long as I can remember and I have had it in a lot of different places; from here in the US to Norway, where it originated.  This brings up the question:  Where can you find the best lefse?  Was it found in Norway, land of its birth?  Or was it the potato-flake version that a friend in Malta made one year for a celebration, using only a banged up, scorched frying pan and a stove that couldn’t control heat?

The lefse made in Malta was, let’s just say, edible.  It served its purpose.  No one would write home to their mother to tell her how much better it was than hers, but it was serviceable.  Edible, like I said.  The accomplishment was not in the flavor, but rather in the fact that my friend was able to use store flaked potatoes, water and butter, along with the only tools available to her at the time:  a small frying pan, turned over to create a larger, flatter surface; a stove that had to be lit using a match and which rarely held a flame for long enough to heat soup, let alone make lefse; a spatula that was more like a rather large spoon and a mixing bowl that was clearly not large enough.  It must have taken her a long time to get even one that worked, but I remember watching her, listening to Maltese pop radio in the background, occasionally interrupted by her roommates coming in asking her what on earth she was doing, and smelling the faint whif of charred frying pan.  It was beautiful.  The steam between that and the tea that was boiling on the stove created was so great that it fogged up the glass doors to the flat, making it look very dubious what was going on in there.  Only when we emerged to the party with fresh lefse, covered in melted butter and cinnamon and sugar did people realize the alchemy that could elicit such delicious treats.

Now, I also had it in Norway, in Oslo in fact, while travelling there with my parents a few years ago.  We were at the outdoor museum, and they were making it fresh, from scratch, in one of the houses and then handing them out for chump change, given the quality of the product.  Warm, almost too warm, with perfect coloring (no scorch marks in sight, but a nice golden color all around) and rolled and filled with any of the previously mentioned fillings that you wanted, they were a joy.  The sun was shining, the air was clear, and you could see the beautiful forest in the distance.  We were already having a wonderful time there, and this was simply the icing on the cake.  You could tell that the quality was the highest possible; well, you would expect nothing less, since this was lefse meant to show off the abilities of the Norwegians to create great food – food for tourists.  It was grand, I admit.  But, you know what?  It wasn’t the best.

The best lefse that I have ever eaten, and which I still reminisce about every year, was made by my aunt, Judy, in her kitchen in North Dakota.  Did she have all of the equipment necessary to make them perfect; from the ricer to the pan?  You know what, I don’t even remember.  What I do remember is that it was the last Christmas that my entire father’s side of the family was able to gather together, my grandmother included, before she finally succumbed to dimentia and moved to a nursing home.  It was dark outside, multiple tables had been pushed together in their living room to accommodate everyone, and the tree was lit, with presents beneath it.  The house was warm from all of the cooking and baking going on, and everyone was drinking, talking and eating.  I by my grandmother and listened to her tell me stories about how Christmas used to be, back when my brother and I were too young to remember and he and I couldn’t wait to open our gifts, and wasn’t it nice that we were now old enough (both adults, by this point) to sit and enjoy dinner and not get distracted by the pretty wrapping and boxes on the floor?  The rest of the meal was typical for us; lasagna (it easily fed everyone and didn’t take too much time or effort to prepare) and garlic bread.  Then, my aunt brought out the lefse.  I don’t think that anyone else really cared very much about it.  It wasn’t as if it was something that had never eaten before, bu somehow, for me at least, it was magical.  My mother is German and I never grew up eating it except when we went up north to visit my relatives, and even then it wasn’t always there.  Lefse is tricky to make well and it takes dedication.  So the fact that my aunt made some that year was very special to me.  It was perfect.  It was warm, served folded, not rolled, and covered in just the faintest hint of cinnamon and sugar and butter.  Just enough to add flavor, but not so much that you couldn’t revel in the potato-y goodness underpinning it all.  My grandmother and I both ate our fair share, and although I don’t think that anyone noticed, I alter snuck back into the kitchen and took another few pieces, now less warm, but no less perfect.

Following that year, my family got together less and less often, and every time with fewer members.  That was many years ago, now that I think about it, but i can still remember it so well.  And the lovingly, perfectly made lefse was the cap to it all.  eating lefse now, even inferior lefse, never fails to bring back those treasured memories.  That’s why, above all others, that lefse was and will always be the best.

Merry Christmas!

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