Tag Archives: travelling

Our ancestral journey to Västervik Sweden

12 Jan

When I was in elementary school my classmates and I went through an ancestral heritage phase. It may have been because we were studying it in school, but all I remember is that it suddenly became cool to say “I’m a quarter Irish” or “I’m half German” or “I’m 1/18 Cherokee” (because every elementary school class has that one kid who claims she’s related to a Cherokee princess, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a Cherokee princess). My parents may have told me my full heritage — a mix of Czech, Swedish, German, Polish and probably a couple others — but I clung to Czech and Swedish. I may have even said I was half each. I liked that my surname was Czechoslovakian, because nobody can pronounce it (“it” being both my surname and “Czechoslovakian”).  At that time Czechoslovakia may have still been a country, but I knew absolutely nothing about it. It was some mystical, magical, far away land. In true beauty pageant fashion I’m not sure I could have found it on a map. My last name was the only bit of my Czech heritage I had. That, and a Valentine written in Czech my great-great-aunt in Cleveland once sent me, and a glass vase given to me by my great-great-aunt’s Czech pen pal who came to visit her (and my entire extended family) in Cleveland when I was young. This lovely old Czech woman’s first (and I believe only) experience of America was suburban Cleveland. I remember my grandparents showed her a right good time though, and stayed in touch with her even after my great-great-aunt passed.

My Swedish heritage, however, my family embraced. My great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, emigrated from Sweden to Pennsylvania in 1914. I never met her, but she passed on some traditions to my grandmother, who passed them on to my mother, who tried to keep them up with our family. These traditions mostly came out at Christmastime. We made Swedish ginger cookies (which we Americanized by slathering them in pounds of frosting), Swedish red velvet cake, Swedish meatballs and meat cakes, and proudly displayed our Swedish candelabra, Dala horses and straw goats. My grandmother kept a very detailed photo album of the family history, and even had photos of my great-grandmother’s house built by her father (my great-great-grandfather) in Västervik, Sweden.

Based on this photo alone and an outdated address, my grandparents went looking for the house 30 years ago. The library in Västervik helped them find the new address, so they drove their rental car over and knocked on the door. I would love to have heard how that conversation went down — “Hello, do you speak English? We are from America. My grandfather built your house. Can we come in?”

But whatever they said worked, because Marianne, the new owner, let them in and gave them a grand tour (all while 8 months pregnant and renovating the place!).

This year my parents and I decided to do a little ancestral tour of Europe, visiting Prague, Stockholm and Västervik. On a whim my dad looked up Marianne on Facebook and saw that she was still living in the house. So he messaged her, and just like that we had an invite for lunch and a house tour in Västervik .

vastervik sign.png

After looking at train schedules, we decided to rent a car. My dad drove while I navigated and spent 30 minutes trying to get the car’s language into English. (I’m not exaggerating, it really did take that long. Thankfully my phone, and Google Translate in particular, worked in Sweden). But eventually we pulled up to a small yellow house on a quiet street in Västervik. Marianne and Benny came out and greeted us like were long lost relatives. And in a way it felt like we were — throughout the day I had to keep reminding myself that Marianne was not my great-aunt or second cousin once removed. She was just some stranger who happened to buy the house from a guy who bought the house from my great-great-grandfather. Yet she showed us the warmest of hospitality, first giving us the grand tour of the house, pointing out which elements were original from 1903, then led us into the kitchen where a traditional Swedish lunch spread was waiting for us.

swedish lunch.pngWe ate Christmas bread, ham, and even drank Swedish Christmas soda. Over lunch we took the opportunity to drill Marianne and Benny with all our Swedish questions. We asked them about meatballs, ginger cookies and Dala horses, all of which they confirmed were in fact Swedish.

What about straw goats? I asked.

Maryann looked at Benny, puzzled.

“Goat?” she asked. “What is goat?”

I quickly googled Swedish straw goat and showed her a photo.

yule-goat

“Ah, yes!” she said. “Yulegoat! This is Swedish.” She then told us about the giant straw yulegoat they erect in Gävle every year and how every year somebody tries to burn it down. I quickly googled Gävle goat and found its Wikipedia page.

“Yep, this year’s goat has already been burned down,” I announced. Apparently even Sweden can’t have nice things.

My mom then asked her about red velvet cake, something we usually bake for my birthday or Christmas. The recipe card from my grandmother says “Swedish red cake.”

“Red welwit?” Marianne asked, struggling to pronounce it.

“Yes, it’s red cake,” my mom said. I pulled up a photo on my phone.

“It’s red?” Marianne asked. “Is it strawberry flavored?”

“No,” we said. “It’s just loaded with artificial coloring. Or beet juice.”

“Sorry, I have never heard of this red velvet,” Marianne said. A quick google search shows red velvet cake was likely invented in America in order to sell more red food coloring. Figures. Oh well, it’s still tasty even if it’s not Swedish.

After lunch we walked around town. I tried to imagine my great-grandmother walking these streets as a girl. What would there have been in place of the McDonald’s and H&M? We strolled along the waterfront, passed the house being constructed by Björn of ABBA, who, fun fact, grew up in Västervik.

vastervik waterfront.png
vastervik city.png
vastervik street.png

We saw the ruins of the Stegeholm Castle and walked up to Gränsö slotts ljusstöperi, an old-school candlestick maker (so famous in the country their website is actually http://www.swedishcandles.com/ and we saw them for sale in gift shops in Stockholm).

candles vastervik.png
vastervik candles.png
After loading up on souvenirs to take home, we walked back to the house, took some more photos, then said our goodbyes. We told them they were welcome to visit us in the U.S. anytime, though it’s hard to imagine someone as well-traveled as Marianne coming to Kentucky (but hey, if Vera from the Czech Republic can enjoy suburban Cleveland, maybe Marianne from Västervik would like Florence, Kentucky!). I told Marianne I would email her the photos I took and my dad said he would keep in touch via Facebook, and we hopped in our rental car and made the 3-hour journey back to Stockholm. (With a quick pit stop at IKEA, because you cannot go all the way to Sweden and not check out an authentic Swedish IKEA. For the record, it looks like an American or British IKEA, only slightly bigger and better designed. And their giant hot dog poster doesn’t have to say “not actual size.”)

ikea giant hot dog.jpg

We also had a nice time in Prague, strolling Charles Bridge, gazing up at the castle and visiting the impressive Old Town Christmas market. But I’m pretty sure my ancestors didn’t live in Prague’s Old Town (or even Prague for that matter), so it didn’t have the same effect as traveling to Västervik. A lot of Americans can’t even narrow down their ancestors to a city, yet alone an exact address, so it was such an incredible experience to be able to step back in time for a day.

China Impressions: Road Trip Snacks

5 Oct

My first Chinese road trip occurred during my first trip to China back in 2009. Stephen’s family drove us to Chengdu so I could achieve my panda dream. This was also my first experience with Chinese road trip snacks. When we got in the car, Stephen’s cousin passed us a bag of snacks, which consisted entirely of fruit — mini bananas, pears, lychee and mangosteen. Some of my favorite fruit, but not the easiest to eat in the car. Growing up, my dad always took pride in our cars. It was the greatest compliment when my friends would get in and tell him our years-old van still looked and smelled brand new. Fresh lychee is not readily available in the U.S., but if it were, we would never be allowed to take it in the car. I can hear my dad’s voice now — “It’s sticky and you’ll get shells and seeds all over!” But that, in a nutshell, seems to be the requirement for Chinese road trip snacks: sticky, shells and seeds.

This month we were in China briefly for a friend’s wedding. The ceremony and reception were held at a resort in a quiet mountain town about 3 hours outside of Shanghai, so the bride and groom kindly rented a big bus to take all their out-of-town guests there. I was prepared to “hold it” the whole way — it was a previous Chinese road trip that enabled me to set my 7 hours “hold it” record (I do not recommend this). I have taken many Chinese road trips, but since I assumed there’d be nothing but squatters, I have never been inside a Chinese rest stop. Until now.

I was pleased to find one handicap sit-down toilet in a sea of squatters (did I set that 7-hour record for nothing?!). While I was in the loo, Stephen hit up the fruit stall — that’s what they have at Chinese rest stops, fruit stalls. When I emerged, he greeted me with a bag of bananas and lotus pods. Members of our group gathered round as I broke the pod open and popped a seed into my mouth.

lotus fruit.jpg

“Oh god, this is horrible!” I said through muffled attempts to spit it out. Turns out you’re supposed to remove the bitter green shell before you eat it. If you do that the seeds are actually tasty.

Just then the bride came over and handed me what I thought was a souvenir relic from the Ming dynasty.

water-caltrop

“Try it,” she said. “It’s good, it tastes like a potato.”

water caltrop open.JPG

It was indeed good and potato-like, but I had no idea what it was. I meant to google “Chinese fruit or vegetable that looks like Satan’s mustache” when I got home, but I didn’t need to. An image of one happened to pop up on Reddit the other day. Turns out it’s a water caltrop, a type of water chestnut — those crunchy bits you see in tins or at the stir fry bar. Who knew they had such ominous exteriors.

water-chestnut-can

Stephen returned to our little group with a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts (cue The Christmas Song). I’m not sure I’ve ever had freshly roasted chestnuts, but they were delicious, and in true Chinese road trip food form, difficult to open and sticky. At least the stall gave us an extra bag to put the shells.

Once back on the bus, everyone shared some of their treasures. One guy went down the aisle passing out sweet potatoes — piping hot, gooey, delicious whole sweet potatoes.

“Why did you buy a whole bag of sweet potatoes?” I asked him.

“Because sweet potatoes are awesome!” he replied. Touche.

So if you’re keeping tally, my Chinese rest stop road trip snacks consisted of a banana, lotus seeds, chestnuts, water chestnuts and a sweet potato.

When we couldn’t possibly eat another chestnut, we passed the bag through the bus, while other snacks came to us. I passed on the bag of dried squid, but grabbed a handful of the next thing that came by.

“Ooo, are these prawn crisps?” I asked.

“Did you just say prawn crisps?” the guy across from me asked, faking an English accent. “They’re obviously shrimp chips!”

My accent might say “American,” but apparently I’ve become more British than I thought.

On our way back to Shanghai 2 days later our bus stopped at the same rest stop. It was around 7pm, so instead of just snacks, we needed to eat something more substantial and dinner-like.

“So tell us, what can we eat here that won’t give us diarrhea?” one of the American guys whispered to Stephen. His advice was to get something hot and cooked, preferably not with meat. There were stalls selling rice balls filled with pork and salty egg, all kinds of tofu, ice cream, corn on the cob, and crepe-like sandwiches. We settled on the crepe-like thing filled with egg, spam and ketchup. It was surprisingly delicious despite how I described it, and we didn’t get sick from it either. On the way out we popped into the only store somewhat reminiscent of an American rest stop filled with packaged snacks like chips and candy. A bag of honey-flavored potato chips caught my eye because I remembered reading an article about Korean honey chip hysteria. I was so excited to try them. They were just OK — better if you thought of them as really thin biscuits/cookies instead of potato chips since they were so sweet. I later realized the popular chips are “honey butter” flavored, not just honey, so I probably bought some cheap rip off Korean chip. I guess I’ll have to go to Korea someday to try the real thing.

Though Chinese road trip snacks are some of the most inconvenient things to eat with their sticky shells, seeds and skins, they are also some of the healthiest. While I don’t see sweet potatoes, lotus and chestnuts coming to an American Flying J truck stop soon, it would be nice to have some options besides McDonalds, chips and candy on my next Megabus ride.

For more in my China Impressions series, click here.

Uneventful adventures in China

9 Aug

Greetings from China!

I met Stephen here the other day. He flew in from London, I flew in from Cincinnati and we met in Shanghai. It seemed like blog material waiting to happen, especially since I would have to find my way to the hotel all by myself. Sure, I was nervous, but I’ve been listening to Pimsleur Chinese lessons for months now and it was all leading up to this moment. I even studied on the plane. And then the minute I landed the only thing that came out of mouth was English. Because it turns out the people who exchange money and sell sim cards at the airport speak English. So my I arrived in a foreign country all by myself story was rather uneventful — I cleared immigration, exchanged some money into RMB, bought a sim card, texted Stephen, and caught a taxi. The only minor hiccup came when I tried to use Uber. I couldn’t figure out where to meet the driver and couldn’t call the driver because my sim card was data only (and also I don’t speak Chinese). So I had to take a taxi, which was reasonably priced and easy. What a boring blog story.

It’s been years since I’ve flown from the US to China, but I knew it was going to be rough. 14 hours on a plane is rough, but it’s even rougher when it’s a 747 with no individual TVs. Luckily I expected this would be the case and loaded up my iPad with movies and TV shows. 747s sure can transport a buttload of people, but transporting them comfortably is apparently not a priority. (For the low price of $1,000 I could have upgraded to business class though!) The entertainment options may suck, but at least they feed you well on a 14-hour flight. Every time I was about to reach for my snack bag, there was another snack or meal on its way. I look forward to crappy airplane food entirely way too much on a long-haul flight. But what else is there to do? I tried to break the flight down into manageable chunks. When there was 8 hours left I thought “only a flight to London now!” At 6 hours left it was a Megabus to Chicago. At 4 hours it was a drive to Cleveland. At 3 hours it was DEAR GOD HOW MUCH LONGER, I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT LIFE WAS LIKE OUTSIDE THIS AIRPLANE. And then whatever meal you eat at 11pm Cincinnati time, 11am Shanghai time came and everything was OK. The obvious solution to not going crazy on an insanely long flight is to sleep. And believe me, I tried. But sleeping sitting up with your feet crammed against a laptop bag is no easy feat. I think I dozed on and off for an hour or two before I gave up and watched another movie. Thankfully our return flight from Hong Kong to London is only 12 hours. 😐

sleepy panda.gif
One final thing — I still may be afraid to speak any Chinese, but I’m amazed at how well I can understand it now. When I really focus I can pick up the gist of Stephen’s conversations. The key there is “really focus,” which isn’t easy, especially when insanely jetlagged. Most of the time my brain decides to just tune it out and focus on eating all the things. (Like xiaolongbao!) Also, have I mentioned before how Asian jetlag is the worst? Because it is. Even after being here for a few days and finally — FINALLY! — sleeping through the night Sunday night, I legit fell asleep on the toilet last night at 9:30. Stephen’s boss’s words still ring true: “You don’t sleep when you go to Asia, you just take a series of long naps.”

jet-lag gilmore girls.gif

Greetings from the land of cheeseheads

30 Jun

I have this theory that your body is just naturally attuned to the time zone you were born in. It’s always easier for me to come back to Eastern Standard Time. That being said, my body does not like Central Time. It never has. I lived in it for several years, and even then I still referred to EST as “real time.” I’m in Milwaukee now, which is on Central Time, and my body has decided that 7am is the time to wake up. This works fine when I pass out at 10pm, but was not too peachy when I went to bed at 2:45am after a successful bachelorette party. I still can’t believe I pulled it off. Planning a bachelorette party/hen do is not easy to begin with, but doing it from the other side of the world is a whole different challenge. Everyone had a good time, I got to ride a party bus for the first time, and the only reason I felt crappy the next day was because of jet lag, not a hangover. I’d call that a success. I also ate cheese curds for the first time, because Wisconsin. They tasted like … cheese. Although perhaps I should try them deep-fried if I want the true experience.

Besides the time change, I’ve also been experiencing some reverse culture shock. In no particular order:

-American power outlets are rubbish. I was brainwashed into thinking they were the best, because, well, America, but they’re horrible. Every time I plug something in it feels so flimsy I’m not sure it’s going to stay. I bought a cheap American curling iron since my British curling tongs aren’t compatible with 120v. Halfway through I noticed my hair wasn’t curling. I was about to blame the cheap iron, but then I realized the plug had just fallen out of the socket. Yes, British plugs are big and unsightly, but they certainly get the job done. In fact, in a recent Reddit thread I believe they were voted best plugs in the world.

-American grocery stores are overwhelming. I’m staying at a hotel near a grocery store so I find myself there practically every day to pick up a meal or snack. I wanted some Greek yogurt. In the UK if I want the legit, high-protein stuff, I have 3 options: Fage Total, Liberte or Skyr. They each have a handful of flavors, but I usually just get plain. At the store here there was an entire aisle of Greek yogurt options — did I want it whipped? With a layer of chocolate on top? With oatmeal mixed in? With nuts mixed in? With a little flippy side full of sweets that turn a healthy snack into a sweet treat? And then there were the flavors — not just strawberry, blueberry and honey like I’m used to, but things like cherry cheesecake, salted caramel and key lime pie. I’m not exaggerating when I say I spent a good 15 minutes standing in that aisle just trying to choose a yogurt. I would say American and British grocery stores carry most of the same basics, but the American ones just have way more varieties of everything. (Don’t even get me started on the cereal aisle…)

-People are really friendly. I’ve walked into stores or hotels and been greeted by people who don’t work there, people who just for some reason want to say hi. I don’t understand this. Also apparently you’re supposed to acknowledge other runners and walkers when you’re out. I thought maybe this was just a suburbia thing, but I’ve been running in downtown Milwaukee and a lot of people do it. This is also weird to me. I will say, however, that Milwaukee is a brilliant city to run in. I took advantage of the one day it wasn’t butt-hot and did 6 miles along the lake and trails. Apparently I’m out of practice because I took a lot of walking breaks, but we’ll blame it on the humidity and desire to take in the scenery.  Like this lighthouse:

milwaukee lighthouseTime has really been flying by, I can’t believe I’ve been here for a week now. And more importantly, I can’t believe my best friend is getting married in less than 2 days!  I think I’m ready to tackle my maid of hono[u]r duties (like saving her a maple bacon doughnut. God bless America!).

How to cancel a non-refundable Priceline hotel reservation

12 Apr

Have you ever used Priceline’s Express Deals feature? It tells you certain features of the hotel, like the neighborhood, star level and average price, but doesn’t tell you the actual hotel until after you book it. I’ve had good luck with it in the past, getting a 4-star hotel room for the price of a 2-star. But sometimes the deal seems too good to be true. And then suddenly you find yourself googling “How to cancel a non-refundable hotel on Priceline.”

Please learn from my mistake, friends.

priceline express deal scam

The Express Deal hotel seemed like a steal — originally $188 a night, now $60. It had free WiFi, free breakfast and a gym. Sure, it was 2 1/2 stars, but a lot of decent hotels are. I compared the perks and price with hotels on the list view and deducted the mystery hotel was the Fairfield Inn — it had to be! It was in a perfect location, got stellar reviews, and for $60 a night would be an absolute steal. So I bit the bullet and booked the deal … only to find out the mystery hotel was not a Fairfield Inn. It was a Craphole Inn (not actual hotel name). A Craphole Inn that I was now going to be spending 6 nights in by myself in a few months because Priceline Express Deals are non-refundable and non-cancellable, no ifs, ands or buts. I stayed up late reading reviews, trying to assure myself that drug and prostitute solicitation doesn’t happen to every guest at Craphole Inn and I probably wouldn’t even notice the stench in the hallway and stains on the sheets. But once I saw a review mentioning bed bugs, it was the last straw. I could not spend 6 nights (or even one night) at Craphole Inn. I had to find a way to cancel the uncancelable.

I called up Priceline and tried the “I was tricked!” route first. Because I really was tricked — Craphole Inn would never go for $188, even during a special event in the city. Its average price is $70 or $80 a night, which makes the $60 deal understandable. When the trickery route wasn’t working I switched to the “woe is me” routine, explaining that I did not feel safe staying at Craphole Inn by myself and I never would have booked the deal if I knew this was the hotel I would get. “Sorry, Express Deals are non-refundable. There is absolutely nothing I can do. Sucks for you,” the Priceline guy said (I’m paraphrasing). I asked to speak to a senior representative. Surely he could sort me out. So I explained my situation again to him, using both the trickery and safety excuses, and was met with the same response — “Sucks for you. It’s not Priceline’s fault one of our listed hotels happens to be in Sketchy McSketchsville. Your reservation cannot be cancelled.”

And that’s when I used the tip I learned in my google search  — the tip I should have used first.

“What if I call the hotel and they agree to cancel?” I felt like I was grasping at straws — why in the world would this strategy work? But apparently I had said the magic words.

“If you can get the hotel to agree to the cancellation and call us back with the person’s name you spoke to, MAYBE we can work something out.”

Bingo.

But what was I going to tell Craphole Inn? That I wanted to cancel my reservation because of the bad reviews and bad neighborhood? I dialed the hotel before I had a chance to chicken out.

“Hello, I would like to cancel my upcoming reservation, please.” I decided polite and straightforward was the best approach.

“No problem,” the woman replied. She was so nice I almost felt bad about calling her place of employment Craphole Inn. In 10 seconds she had my reservation cancelled. It was almost too easy — as if Craphole Inn was used to people trying to back out of Priceline Express Deal reservations. I took down her name and called Priceline back. The Priceline representative put me on hold while she called Craphole Inn to confirm my cancellation, and then just like that I got an email confirmation of my refund for my non-refunable booking. I had successfully cancelled the uncancellable.

So it’s possible, friends. I wouldn’t recommend it, because there’s always a chance the hotel won’t agree, but it turns out you CAN cancel a Priceline Express Deal.

Here’s my tip for booking Express Deals: Only book them in cities where you are familiar with all the hotels available and there are no Craphole Inns you wouldn’t want to be stuck with. Sometimes the Express Deal hotels are not listed in the List View (Craphole Inn wasn’t) so there may be more possible hotels in that area with that star rating and those amenities than you think. You’ll also notice that when a hotel is not a craphole, the Express Deal will list the guest rating. I should have noticed that was missing from Craphole Inn’s listing. That’s a clear sign to stay away, lest you spend an hour of your afternoon on the phone with Priceline begging to cancel a non-refundable booking.

priceline express deal

TL; DR: Call the hotel first. Ask to cancel. If they agree, take down person’s name you spoke to. Call Priceline. Give them hotel person’s name. Wait while Priceline calls hotel to confirm cancellation. Be relieved you don’t have to stay at craphole.

2006 Renee’s thoughts on London and Italy

28 Dec

One of the best parts about being back at my Kentucky home is the treasure trove of nostalgia — from baby photos to my college admission essay to the travel journal I kept on my very first trip abroad in 2006. I have no recollection of it, but apparently I kept a little log of my 8 hours in London and 7 days in Italy. I was in college at the time, but my high school Latin teacher was taking a group of students to Italy and invited me to join them since I had expressed interest in the trip years before. Since it was a classics-centric trip, we took advantage of our 8-hour layover in London and hopped on a bus from Gatwick Airport to the British Museum, saw the Elgin Marbles and other classical pieces, then hopped back on the bus to Gatwick to catch our flight to Naples. This is why when we first moved to London and people asked if I had ever been to London before, my answer was “Yes, but only for 8 hours.”

This is the exact journal entry I wrote on June 7, 2006:

I have transcended time. I no longer know whether I’m tired or wide awake. The line grows thinner by the minute.

Things that make London awesome:
-They have the world’s greatest public restrooms (toilets). Full doors, beautifully scented soap and dryers that literally blow your skin off.
-Very few people wear flip flops. Those who do are probably tourists.

Things I don’t like about London:
-Everything is horribly expensive.
-Food is horrible.

Keep in mind that my only real experience of London was Gatwick and the British Museum, but it cracks me up how accurate my assessment was. In 2006 Dyson Airblade and other high-speed hand dryers weren’t mainstream in the US yet, so the ones in Gatwick may have been my first encounter with them. I’m pretty sure my “Things I don’t like about London” section came solely from my experience of lunch at the airport. I bought some ready-made sandwich which probably cost around £6, but in 2006 the exchange rate was closer to 2 to 1 so it would have been close to $12. I can’t remember what kind of sandwich I got, but my American palate was obviously not used to the gloriousness that is the British ready-made sandwich (or I just chose a bad combination). My memory of what we saw at the British Museum is foggy, but I do remember the horrible weight of jet lag, a feeling that has become all too familiar in recent years.

This is one of the few photos I took in London. My 2006 self found the concept of a 99p store (akin to a dollar store) hilarious:

99p zone.png

My notes from Italy are sporadic and either way too detailed (one night I had pasta with zucchini, breaded fish with lemon and tiramisu for dinner) or vague inside jokes and bits of conversations I don’t remember having, but I obviously thoroughly enjoyed. However, I did compile this list of Things I Learned:

-It’s impossible to eat Italian bread without crumbs
-There’s no such thing as a line
-All road signs are suggestions
-“They’re Italians, they don’t care”
-Sleep is for the weak
-Italian time
-Peeing is a privilege you sometimes have to pay for
-Pope on a rope and popener (pope can opener)
-80s music is cool (didn’t have to tell me that!)
-Don’t remember street names like the computer Dell. They all start with that. (Via del ….)
“Ciao. I’d like a cheeseburger. Grazie.” is perfect Italian
-There is no such thing as too much walking or too many Roman ruins
-Non appoggiarsi does not mean “we are not sorry”*
-Cities are good, but it’s the people you’re with that make it great.

I think I wrote that last line when I was missing Stephen. At the time we had been dating for less than 6 months. When I threw my coin into the Trevi Fountain, I never dreamed I’d be returning to Rome 5 years later with Stephen and my entire family. Or that 4 years and 4 months after eating that dreadful Gatwick sandwich I’d be living in London and happily living off Tesco sandwich meal deals for a full month. Funny how circumstances change and tempus fugit! (That’s Latin for “time flies”)

* “Non appoggiarsi” was written on the doors of the Roman metro. Google translate tells me it means “do not lean,” which makes sense. For some reason the little group I hung out with on the trip thought “non appoggiarsi” was the funniest Italian phrase and pronounced it “non apologarsi,” like an Italianization of “apologize.” After a glass of wine or two we may have bumped into random Italians on the street or on the metro and declared “non apologarsi!” before erupting into a fit of giggles. I like to think I’ve matured over the past 9 1/2 years, but writing “non apologarsi” still made me chuckle a little.

Reporting live from Newark Airport yesterday

25 Nov

I’m writing this from American soil — Newark Liberty Airport. I was not supposed to have time to sit down and bang out a blog post. But I sailed through customs, dropped my bag off again, then gazed at the board to double check my Cincinnati flight, and there it was in red letters — CANCELED.

Up until then things were going swimmingly. My bag was 53.1 kg (.1kg overweight) and they didn’t bat an eye. No one gave my clearly overexpanded wheeled carry on a second glance. And to top it off, there was only one empty seat on the entire flight, and it was next to me. What did I do to deserve such blessing from the travel gods? Sure, the entertainment system and movies were rubbish, but as far as long-haul flights go, it was a relatively good one.

And then I got to America. After waiting for an unusually long time at the service desk, they informed me I was booked on the next flight to Cincinnati — leaving in over 4 hours. They told me because I was delayed for more than 3 hours I could get a free meal voucher from the service station. But they did not bother to tell me where the service station was. So I went up to a random United employee and asked. She directed me towards the exact agent who issued me my ticket. So I asked another guy. Same thing. But he said he would try to help me, and put his lackey on it. I have no idea who that guy was or what his job title was, but apparently he was a big shot. We chatted about London and the Bengals while his colleague struggled to get my voucher.

“It’s not much, like $7, but it’ll get you a free cup of coffee,” he told me.

His colleague finally returned with the voucher — and there were 2 of them.

“There’s two?” I said, thinking there was a mistake or reprint.

“Now you can get a whole cup of coffee,” he said with a wink.

Whoever that guy was, he was a shining example of what an airline employee should be. Friendly, helpful and efficient. And then I headed to security and met his exact opposite.

“Bag,” the guy said, pointing at my overexpanded carry on and then gesturing to that metal “will it fit?” guide.

“I know, I know,” I said, “but I’ll just gate check it.”

“No gate check.” he said.

“I’m going to Cincinnati and the plane is small so they always gate check all the wheeled bags,” I tried to explain.

“No gate check.” he said, motioning again to the metal guide.

“Just zip up this expander,” his colleague finally said, stepping in to help.

I knew it wouldn’t zip with my coat in there, so I opened the bag, took out my dressy coat, put it on underneath my puffy coat, zipped up my bag, and had a mental breakdown.

I have no idea what happened. One minute ago I was fine — I had $14 airport dollars burning a hole in my pocket and just got off a transatlantic flight in which I had two whole seats to myself. But something about that guy, the whole TSA charade and the thought of killing 4 hours in the airport after killing 8 hours on a flight just got to me.

I trudged through security, stripping off my two coats, trying to keep it together because if there’s one place you don’t want to appear mentally unstable its in airport security. I somehow got TSA pre-check (maybe because I already cleared security at Heathrow?) so I didn’t have to remove my laptop, shoes or liquids, which is good because I was such a mess I didn’t even think to. I wheeled my bag over to an empty gate, pulled myself together, and stuffed my coat back into my carry on and re-expanded it. I then got out my laptop, started watching a movie, put on my proverbial big girl panties and sucked it up. There are far, far worse airport situations to be in and being that it’s almost Thanksgiving and all, I should just be thankful that my coats, jumbo bags and I are safe.

Update: Half cup of coffee guy wasn’t kidding. I’m convinced Newark Airport’s food prices are based on the fact that at least 80% of their customers are using airport vouchers or company expense accounts. For $15 I got a small cup of berries, Greek yogurt, a small bag of popcorn and a chocolate bar.

Update 2: My overexpanded bag fit in the overhead. Suck on that “no gate check” guy.