Category Archives: travel

Me llamo Katrina. Yo no soy una manzana.

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When asked to name one big regret I have in life, I’m pretty lucky. I don’t have a lot of terrible, life-altering mistakes to choose from. Sure, I’ve been through some things that, at the time, I would have skipped if I could, but I wouldn’t change the pattern God has woven into my life for anything, even if some of the threads were not of my choosing. No, my one big regret is actually one of mere practicality:

I regret not taking Spanish as my foreign language in high school.

Don’t mistake me; I enjoyed the French language very much. At one time, I was surprisingly proficient in it, and was even able to navigate among native speakers for a six week exchange program in Aurillac, France. My fluency has ebbed away with disuse, but I still remember the essentials. Ou est le WC? = Where is the bathroom? J’ai besoin d’aller à l’hôpital! = I need to go to the hospital! Est-ce crêpe sans gluten? = Is this crepe gluten-free? (Okay, I confess. I had to look up the French word for “gluten”. It turns out that it’s “gluten”. Who knew?) I was understandably proud of my French-speaking abilities once upon a time, especially on those very rare occasions when the villains in a spy movie we were watching would speak a smattering of French and I was able to (sort of) translate for all my friends: “If we don’t get the (something) letters within two days, the man in blue will (uh…do something) to our (something – did he say cadavre or confrère?), so hurry!”

Okay, so it wasn’t that useful.

On the other hand, there have been scores of occasions when the ability to speak Spanish would have been a real, tangible asset. I’ve met people from South America in nearly every state that I’ve lived in, and some of them have not yet learned enough English to be clearly understood. It would have been nice, for example, to be able to talk to the soft-spoken man back in Searcy who turned up at Hastings with Paul’s stolen bicycle. It took half an hour and some earnest charades for us to make him understand that the bike belonged to Paul and to find out that he had bought it from a man who “had many bicycles” that he was selling out of his truck. Fortunately, the next time we met him, to give him a hand-me-down bicycle we had lucked into, he was surrounded by bilingual friends, and communication was much easier.  I would have liked to have been able to make my homesick Nicaraguan college roommate feel more welcome, but our interactions were painfully limited by our language barrier.  And just recently, I had a sweet family come in to use our church food bank who didn’t speak any English at all. Though our smiles were there, the words were not. It took a long, awkward effort on all of our parts for me to figure out that they were looking mainly for diapers and baby food.

Time and again, I have wished to go back in time and check the little box marked “español” on my 10th grade class schedule application. Time and again, I’ve regretted the whim of fifteen year-old me, who thought French sounded more mysteriously romantic and better befitting a wannabe Baudelaire like myself.

It finally occurred to me this week that I could stop regretting… and just learn Spanish.

So that is my new project! Voy a aprender a hablar español! Sure, my brain is older now, and my language acquisition center is probably draped in cobwebs, but I don’t need to be a qualified UN translator. I just want to be able to hold a real conversation (i.e. one that doesn’t involve la biblioteca*) with people I meet. I can learn that much, right?

The first thing I did was look up Rosetta Stone. Ouch. Our budget doesn’t have a “language education” category, so that’s out. Aren’t there any free options out there? I poked around on the internet for a few days, not really finding anything useful. And then, Lifehacker did that magic trick where they featured an article that told me exactly what I needed to know.

So I’m signed up on Duolingo. I created an account and downloaded the free app for my tablet and phone (it’s available for iOS and Android platforms!) I’m already halfway through lesson one (yo soy una mujer)! Now all I need is a Spanish-speaking friend to practice on. Or a classmate. Anybody else wanna hablar español?

* Donde esta la biblioteca?

Back from the Steamy South

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Actually, it wasn’t that steamy, but 70 degrees and sunny in the middle of February was a gift to delight the heart of this North Idaho girl.  My sister and I took daily walks in the sunshine, and I could almost feel my body ramping up its vitamin D production.

I got to enjoy loving on my beautiful nieces and nephew:

Mufaro, 3-1/2 months

Riley and Seth

I ate at my much-missed Chick-Fil-A and at my favorite high school hangout, Waffle House (which one comedian famously described as a truck stop restroom that serves food.):

Chicken Biscuit

Scattered, Smothered, Covered

I did neurofeedback treatments twice a day, and, judging by how much better I feel, I’d say they were a great success in bringing down my anxiety levels and calming my poor, overstimulated brain.  Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of my sessions.  Have you seen the movie “Total Recall”?  Yeah… it was nothing like that.

Best of all, I got to hang out with my dad and mom and sister and brother and their families, and it was wonderful.

Amber, Bill, and yours truly

I might not even wait until the next time I go crazy to make a return trip.

Vegas Revisited

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Usually, the phrase “so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk” is a hyperbole. Not so on the Las Vegas Strip in the middle of July. I meant to bring an egg with me to try it out this time, but you know how tight TSA carry-on baggage regulations have gotten lately. And believe it or not, there’s nowhere on the Strip to actually buy a single egg unless it’s already cooked into a fifteen dollar frittata, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. It was hot.

Not that the heat was a surprise to Tracy, Regina, and I. This was, after all, our second July trip to Vegas, which made us experts of a sort, if there is a field of expertise that specializes solely in finding great places to eat and shop and indulge in innocent entertainment in a town built mostly around naughtiness.

I suppose we might have been a little naughty, if you count the sin of gluttony, because we ate, and we ate well. Hoo, boy, did we eat. We made a return visit to our favorite buffet of all time at the Bellagio, enjoyed sushi again (several times) at the site of my own maiden sushi experience, Ra, and together polished off four large boxes of gourmet chocolates from famous Ethel’s Chocolate Lounge (it was buy three get one free–what were we supposed to do?) Without a doubt, though, one of the gustatory highlights of the trip was lunch (courtesy of Regina’s wonderful husband, Chris, who paid the bill) at The Mesa Grill, a hotspot owned by celebrated chef Bobby Flay. I had the amazing Barbecued Lamb Cobb Salad and we ordered and split three desserts that defy the powers of my usual catalog of adjectives. This morning I got on the scale to tally up the damage and was pleasantly surprised to see that I didn’t gain a pound! I guess all that toiling up and down hot Vegas sidewalks had its rewards, after all.

We stayed at the luxurious (and I don’t use that adjective lightly) Venetian hotel, possibly the most pampering place in which I have ever parked a suitcase. With big fluffy robes and slippers, fresh flowers in the bathroom, three flat screen televisions (including one you could watch while stretching out full length in the enormous tub), and a panoramic view of the Strip out of our picture window, our deluxe suite made me feel like the rock star I always wanted to be.

And, of course, we shopped. It didn’t seem to matter that everything cost half again as much as it would at home. It was only Vacation Money, after all, so it flowed rather more freely than the real kind. The kids’ favorite purchase of mine was the dice-shaped lollipops I brought home for them. As of this writing, they’ve sucked most of the dots off, and are working diligently at making the rest disappear as well.

Oh, and I’m sorry to disappoint you gambling teetotalers out there, but I did take my turn at the penny slot machine. I lost a whole dollar! At one point, I was up to a dollar forty; I just knew I should have cashed out then. So much for my plan to pay off our student loans with my ill-gotten gains.

I should mention that this lovely and relaxing girls getaway was only made possible by support from the troops at home, particularly Paul, who took my place as pancake-maker, tucker-inner, boo-boo-kisser, and all around nurturer in addition to performing his own duties as spider-killer, entertainment-coordinator, and transportation-provider. Thanks, babe. You totally rock! (And I don’t mean like Wayne Newton.)

***

Tracy, me, Regina:

The famous Bellagio fountains! I recorded this on my tiny purse cam, so please excuse the tinny sound and the Blair-Witch-esque camera work. I highly recommend seeing it in person:

Snow Tired

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I knew I was taking a gamble, waiting so long to get my snow tires put on.

I love winter weather, but I hate winter roads.

Last night, the snow fell. And fell, and fell. This morning, I drove Paul to work, dropped Katie off at school, picked up Kelly for Bible study, and pulled into Michelle’s driveway ten minutes late, remembering at every stop sign and curve in the road why we once nicknamed our car The Ice Skate. All-weather tires might be fine for some, with their fancy anti-lock brakes and their four wheel drive, but when it comes to our Ford, we might as well be rolling around on plastic Big Wheel tires for all the grip they have. It’s only the first snow of the season, and already I’ve gotten stuck in the middle of a large intersection and slid through a stop sign right in front of a police officer (who seemed to be laughing too hard at the panicked look on my face and my wild brake-pumping to give me a ticket.)

And this morning, there were forty-three cars awaiting a tire change at Les Schwab in a line that just kept growing as the day passed. When I called a little before three to see how long the wait would be, the weary receptionist who answered the phone informed me that they weren’t taking any more cars today, thank you very much and try again tomorrow.

“How long?” I asked. “If I bring my car in first thing tomorrow morning, how long until you get to it?” “Well, we could probably have it back to you sometime in the afternoon,” she said.

“Sometime in the afternoon” does not work for me. I have a standing date to pick up a little girl who will not understand if I don’t show up in the school pick-up lane at 3:15 p.m. on the dot. Other tire places are equally swamped by procrastinators (you can tell the people who got their tires changed early by the smirks on their faces as they drive by), and I’m quickly despairing of getting my studs on before the next predicted winter storm hits on Thursday.

Finally, I think of Wal-mart. We’ve gotten our oil changed there many times, and I distinctly remember the sign on the garage saying “Tires and Lube”, so I give them a call. The prognosis is hopeful. If I drop my car off in the morning, I’m told, it will probably take until just past noon to get it back. Four hours at Walmart. Is that all? How hard can it be? We can do all of Caleb’s favorite things: tap on the lobster tank, get a free cookie at the bakery, visit the fish, look at all the toys in the toy department and press each and every button we can find. That will use up at least four hours, right?

No matter, I’m just happy to trade in The Ice Skate for a nice Cleat.

Liberty and Restrooms for All

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Common wisdom contends that there’s nothing like travel to make you truly appreciate home.I don’t know if that’s true in all respects, but there is one facet of life in the good old USA that I came to adore during my excursions across the pond, a feature of American culture that remains unequaled among the developing and developed countries of the world.

I speak, of course, of the availability of public restrooms.

I never knew how much I took the constant presence of restroom facilities for granted until I traveled abroad. In many places, public bathrooms just didn’t exist. And forget ducking into a restaurant or patisserie for quick relief—toilets in those places are reserved for patrons only. It is the height of rudeness to dash into someone’s business, avail yourself of the facilities, and dash back out. I can’t tell you how many uneaten pastries and unsipped cups of coffee I left in my wake as I crossed the European continent in search of a place to do my business.

There’s something about not knowing where or whether you’ll next be able to use the bathroom that makes you have to go all the time.

Nor do the rare accessible toilets always take the comforting and familiar white porcelain form to which I am accustomed. In many places, the “loo” is nothing more than a hole in the floor with a footplate on either side. Others are more of an outhouse-type structure. Trust me, though, when I say that by the time I found a place to potty, I usually did not care what it looked like. The majority of toilets for travelers seemed to be of the “pay and pee” variety, very similar to a public restroom in any large American venue, but with coin slots on the doors. I tried to keep a pocket full of jingling change with me at all times. Only once was I reduced to begging a stranger for a donation, which she promptly handed over with a sympathetic smile. I think she took one look at my crossed legs and panic-stricken face and decided it would be cheaper to help me out than to pay her dry-cleaning bill when I exploded.

Probably the most psychologically damaging public restrooms I encountered were in Paris. They consist of a sort of metal capsule with an electronic door. You put your francs in the slot, step through the door (which closes behind you), and do what you came to do as fast as humanly possible. Theoretically, these doors are timed to open automatically if you don’t emerge within fifteen minutes, but I swear that the one I used gave me a scant twenty seconds. I just barely managed to get my clothing rearranged over my delicate bits before the door slid noiselessly open and I was spot lit by the late afternoon sun in front of a crowd of grinning Parisians. Not my most poised moment as a suave and sophisticated world traveler.

I’d like to think that every sojourner to distant lands comes back with at least one good bathroom story. After all, the need to go is something we all share, no matter where we live. Fortunately, crossed legs and a panic-stricken face are easily translated into any language.