Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Home at Last

Ian and I moved back into our house 14 days ago, and boy are we glad to be here. Our house, making sure that the renters wouldn’t feel bad at all to be moving to their new place (they bought a condo—they seem quite happy about it), let a little river flow through the basement six days before they left. Those of you who know us and our house know that rivers have run through it periodically over the last almost eight years, and we thought we’d taken care of them all with French drains and the judicious use of sump pumps and exterior water-seepage-blocking spray stuff on the outside of the basement walls (exposed, of course, due to a great deal of hired sweat). But, it turns out not putting a drain by the crawl space meant that the water had one last way in.

As floodings go, this one was minor (it happened the same day that I-5 closed in Chehalis and some relatives had to be rescued from the attic of their house by boat). It didn’t get anyone’s belongings wet, and only soaked a little bit of the carpet on the bottom stair. But it was enough to convince G&E, the former tenants, that their new 2nd floor condo was a step up (and not just literally).

Anyway, they were willing to let us not do anything, as any work in the yard would only seriously inconvenience everyone involved and not, in fact, solve anything before they left. As of yet, we still haven’t done anything, but rains have been more moderately usual, and the basement has stayed dry through our moving process.

I really think the house missed us. We’d lived here for seven years straight, and had, aside from the river, no problems with anything. We feel warmed and well-protected by our house, and we feel that our friends and family are also comfortable here. When we moved out, though, I don’t think I let the house know how much we really appreciate it. We talked a lot about going away for a couple years, having strangers live within its walls, then building a new house and moving away when we returned to the US. And I think our house here was sad.

I may have the order of events wrong, but here are some of the problems G&E encountered, most of them within the first two months:

The drain for the clawfoot tub disconnected.
After it had been reconnected, one clawfoot fell off the tub while G was showering, pitching him to the floor. And the drain disconnected again.
The bathroom fan went out.
The sewer went out, or rather stopped going out, which turned out to be because the line from the house to the street was completely clogged up with debris and a huge root system.

I believe that’s it—at least, that’s all G&E let us (read: Deane) know about. We found a couple days ago, however, that the oven doesn’t work very well. I turned it up as high as it would go and still, after about 3 hours, it had only reached 377 degrees, where it seemed to have stalled out. Clearly not acceptable. I hope G&E were simply not bakers rather than they just didn’t want to complain about another issue.

We received our keys on the evening of December 9, and immediately, throughout the house, burned some sage that we’d harvested from our front stoop and banged two grills from the stove together to produce a purifying clanging sound. We weren’t so much getting rid of energy—as I’ve said, G&E were great tenants, and all-around good people—but rather letting the house know that we were back.

I had two rooms that I wanted to repaint before we moved in our belongings, so we went into those rooms (our bedroom and our former guest room which is now my study) with pencils and wrote prayers on the walls that were about to be covered up. A friend gave me this idea, and I love it. Basically, you write things that you are grateful for (past, present or future, but as if they have already happened), and infuse your room with good energy.

It seems to have worked—I’ve been sleeping well in our bedroom, and I’m looking forward to creating in my office (by the way, the bedroom had been light blue with a green wall and it’s now a warm, caramely brown; and the study-as-guest-room was peach, and it’s now a rich pumpkin.)

We’ve replaced a lot of things. We decided when we moved out that the futons had to go—they’re convenient, yes, but I’d bought them ten years before in graduate school and we thought it was time to join the adult world with adult furniture. So we now own a sleeper-sofa in the TV room and we have on order a classic cigars-at-the-men’s-club sofa from North Carolina. We also replaced both our mattresses with organic latex, wool and cotton mattresses that. we. love. I’ve been having a nap every day just to appreciate the guest bed as well as our own.

We’ve entered the world of grown-up entertainment systems . . . sort of . . . with a flat screen plasma TV that had to be installed by the Geek Squad. I say sort of because we did get an HD DVD player, but we did not get cable TV, regardless of the fact that our internet and phone are now from Comcast. We really just don’t watch TV, and if we do decide we need to continue with the Gossip Girl habit we started while staying at L&S’s place, we can probably find some rabbit ears in a dumpster or in a piece of retro art somewhere.

Spackle has inserted himself seamlessly back into our lives, resurrected, as it were, from the “doggy heaven” that Ian kept claiming he was staying at. His first bath in 8 months yielded a lot of hair. Like, enough for another dog. He still snores at night if we let him sleep in the bed with the sides, because he rests his chin and cuts off his air, evidently. And keeps us awake.

Today we’ve been finishing up collating the last few belongings into their appropriate order and hanging the last few bits of art on the walls, then I think we’re both ready to take a breather and see about getting back into the semblance of a routine after almost nine months.

For several weeks I had been ready for the adventures to end, so that I could have a place to call my own again, a place to get back into my schedule, and use the things that I have collected to live my life the way I want to live it. So that I could be settled again. And when we were given our keys, back in mid-December, the first thing I felt wasn’t joy, it wasn’t freedom, it wasn’t relief. The first thing I felt was . . . settled. And a twinge of regret that we hadn’t managed to make it to New Zealand. And that we weren’t free to go traipsing around the world again at the moment, maybe South America this time. And that we were, as we’d been wishing, the only ones in charge of all the issues and responsibilities of home ownership. I quickly recovered, and I have loved being back in my space again, where Ian is the only other person I have to worry about.

It’s been a crazy year, certainly. One year ago, Ian was offered the job in Wellington. In January, I had a mastectomy. In April we moved out of our house, expecting to alight again in Southern climes. In May we left for Europe, and after four months of nomadism, arrived back in Seattle at the end of August. We stayed with friends for 3 months, then suddenly here we are, back in our house, one year later, as if nothing had happened. But everything is different.

So . . . where to next?

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Confession

I went to New York City over the first weekend in December, to attend a baby shower for the first baby of one of my college friends. A. was actually one of the first people I met in college—she was my RA, and signed me in when Dad dropped me off. It was a growing experience for both of us—me and Dad, that is—because I found myself installed on a co-ed floor (shared bathroom!) and Dad found himself needing to be polite to someone who, well within her rights, was chewing gum in his presence. Dad had some idiosyncrasies, and expecting the world to not make small repetitive noises just because they irritated him was one of them. I remember being impressed that he didn’t even glare at her, leaving her to wonder why this complete stranger was judging her for some mysterious reason. No, he tucked away his irritation in a way that some might even have interpreted as a lack of concern.

Anyway, A. and her husband J. are expecting a little girl at the end of January, and I was thrilled, in the midst of our busy fall of sitting around waiting to move back into our house, to have the time to visit and attend the shower. I was only able to stay two nights, however, and so (and here is the confession) I didn’t contact any other of my NYC friends.

This was a difficult choice to make, and I felt bad about it for awhile, but it was ultimately the only thing I could’ve done. I had not gone to NYC alone—two other college friends, L. and C., also came, and between the four of us (five if you count baby Ribbet, her in-utero name; six if you count J.) we had plenty to do to keep us busy.

So, if you live in NYC and you missed me December 1st, I do apologize, and I’ll plan many more days for my next trip.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Here We Stay

Ian and I came to the decision about 10 days ago that we would rather stay in Seattle than continue to jump through the hoops set out for us by New Zealand Immigration. They were getting ridiculous. One requirement was that Ian submit a certified copy of his undergraduate diploma even though they already had an official transcript. Finding the diploma, which Ian had never considered to be that important, involved him digging through my brother’s basement, where many of our belongings are stored, for most of an afternoon (I happened to be out of town, and was thus, unfortunately, unable to assist).

They were sticklers on relationship evidence as well. Our marriage certificate wasn’t enough, and photos we sent (digital print-outs) illustrating several years of relationship were deemed to be “photocopies, not originals,” as were the digital print-outs of some bank statements. It’s not as if Ian were a New Zealand citizen trying to sneak in a “wife”; he would’ve been there last April if it weren’t for me. We joked all summer that this was his chance to get rid of me. But no, he insisted on keeping me on, as the “anchor weighing him down.” (his words or mine? we can’t remember.).

My health history eventually reared its head too, with a request from the medical consultants for “more specific information from her surgeon, including her prognosis (figures if possible), and future surgical and/or medical needs.” I’m sorry—my surgeon isn’t any more of a clairvoyant than you are, Dr. New Zealand Medical Consultant. I’m afraid she, also, has no idea what my expiration date is.

We spent thousands of dollars on the process too, including the application fees, the medical exam fees, the certification fees, and the shipping fees.

All of those things were irritations, yes, but strangely, the benefit of them was that they took so much time. We started thinking about New Zealand ten months ago, last year, Christmas 2006. I’m sure we would’ve loved Wellington if we’d gotten there in April as we’d originally expected . . . but the longer we spent not there the more we thought about Seattle and how much we already love it here. We really do. We have dear friends here, we have family here, we have a dog here. We have a house that we love, and that appeals to us in location and character. We can ski here, we can ride here, we can kayak here. We can eat exclusively organic food here, even if we go out. Ian can even get a job here, and one that he’ll probably love. If Wellington was expected to offer a significantly different, and significantly better (at least as far as we are concerned) environment, we maybe would’ve stuck it out to the bitter end. But aside from the traffic (which doesn’t directly affect us, fortunately), pretty much everything is at least slightly better here.

And so, thank you New Zealand Immigration, for doing such a brilliant job of petty bureaucracy. If you’d actually seen the value of us as potential Kiwis, we would’ve made the mistake of leaving this land that we love, and giving our considerable skills and strengths to you.


Southern California Fires—Not Our Fault

Ian and I were in La Jolla a few weeks ago, for him to attend a dork conference and for me to, as it turned out, sleep a lot in the lovely and unpeopled apartment of his friend and former UW office-mate, A (for those of you who followed along this summer, A’s parents were the generous ones with the Alentejan beach house in Portugal). Five days in Southern California were enough to make us very, very happy that Ian decided not to look into jobs there. The surface streets are six lanes wide, for crying out loud. Ian did skip out on the last day of his conference and we drove to the Salton Sea. If you know nothing (or even if you do) about the Salton Sea, then you should totally watch this documentary. It’s a bizarre, fascinating place. And it smells.

Probably much of the reason I slept so much was the Valium I was taking for my jaw—turns out I had three cavities that needed filling when I got home from the Summer of Self-Indulgence, so I spent a couple hours with my mouth wide open and as a result it was very sore. I was supposed to take the Valium right before I went to bed, so that I’d sleep well and not be dopey the next day, but it kind of had a time-release effect with me. No matter what time I took it, I finally woke up the next day about 12 hours after I’d gone to sleep (i.e. take Valium and 9:00pm. Go to bed at 11:30pm. Wake up next day at noon.).

We also ate some good Mexican food (I was careful with the chips) in Old Town and the Gas Lamp District, and I finished one night on the town with a chocolate shake from Ghirardelli (yum!).

On our way from the Salton Sea we drove through the town of Ramona, from which 30,000 people were evacuated less than a week later. But we were long gone by then.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Pictures from Jerome Creek

I've put more pictures up on a google web album. I think a lot of them are better than my usual pictures, courtesy of my friend E's SLR camera. It didn't go on any rides with me, since it doesn't fit in my pocket, so all of these pics are from walks I took. With dogs and horses. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Not in Any Particular Order

When one is on the road for months on end, it’s hard to keep track of what one has and hasn’t written about. At least, when I’m on the road for months on end, it’s hard for me to keep track. I know there’s tons of stuff I left off, tons of stuff we really enjoyed, or found beautiful, or eye-opening, or whatever. So I’m going to wrack my brains, and try to give Europe more of its due (in doing so, I may repeat things. Ah well.). And so, following are things I loved.

Riga, Latvia: Double Coffee. No, it’s true, I wasn’t drinking coffee by the time we got to Latvia, but Double Coffee is oh, so much more than a coffeehouse chain. It also has an extensive, full-color menu of snacks with photos so you know what you’re getting even if you haven’t managed to learn more than one word of Latvian and it’s not a food word. Pancakes of various sorts (like crepes, or hashbrowns) are popular snacks in Riga and Double Coffee serves them up right (i.e. either sweet or savory has lots of sour cream). They also do smoothies and shakes, and lots of kinds of coffee. Ian had Turkish, made the traditional way in a brazier full of hot sand, with the little brass coffee maker sitting right in the sand.

Arctic Circle: Reindeer are really, really cute with their huge fuzzy feet (good as snowshoes) and their velvety antlers. And they’re charmingly daft about cars sharing the highways with them.

Lisbon: Visiting our friends A&F who, we just found out, have a third family member on the way! The timing of our visit to them seems to have been auspicious . . .

London: Our friends J&C who got engaged between visits to them. The timing of our visits to them seem to have been auspicious as well. Way to go J! Best wishes, C.

Scotland: Tumbling, tea-colored becks washing down steep, barren hillsides. Tie-dyed sheep. Porridge.

Sweden: White-trimmed red fishing villages. I’d love to see all the red against the snow in the winter. For those three hours of daylight. Staying with dear friends, again (read more about Sweden, from the inside, here.)

Kihnu, Estonia: Wireless internet in our inn, on the island where women—young women—still wear their traditional woolen skirts for everyday use.

Šiauliai, Lithuania: several girls’ football teams staying in our Soviet hotel with us, in town for some tournament. Using Skype in the hotel lobby to call their boyfriends back in Liverpool.

Ravello, Italy: The lemon tree outside our room, where I hung my dress to dry in the warm breeze. Chocolate gelato. Chocolate gelato.

Amorgos, Greece: Dmitri, our landlord, running outside onto his verandah with an ancient shotgun and pretending to shoot the Greek military planes doing maneuvers overhead.

Pärnu, Estonia: The beautiful people in the notary’s office.

Porto, Portugal: Indian food, then ice cream at an outside bar in the new part of Gaia, as the sun set and the stars came out over the Douro. Playing on the new playground with 7-year-old C. Marveling anew, neck craned and mouth agape, at the crumbling tiled grandeur of the Ribeiro district, then eating a succulent choriço assado.

Arlanda Airport, Sweden, the second time: Seeing my brother and sister-in-law waiting for us outside customs. First family members to hug in almost four months.

Trás-os-Montes, Portugal: Finding extra pork in our doggie bag, so we’d be sure to have enough for sandwiches the next day.

Hampstead, London: Attending my first Quaker Meeting with a relative of a family friend.

Folegandros, Greece: The perfect place to stay for a week. Flying views of the sea. Heart-tugging pastoral beauty. Donkeys.

Heathrow Airport: Business Class Lounge. Oh yeah.

Porto Côvo, Portugal: The beach through the tunnel, particularly the time we went at night, with a full moon and no flashlights. WiFi in the main square.

Westray, Orkney, Scotland: The Pierowall Hotel, with its “snug”, for adults only. Puffins.

Mainland, Orkney, Scotland: Viking graffiti near the ceiling at Mae’s Howe, the Neolithic burial site: “Thor writes this very high up.”

Europe, in general: Sharing four months with Ian.

A Good Day

Had an awesome ride on Sikem today, where I got to use a narrow trail I’d found a few years ago that’s clearly meant to be a secondary choice, but had to be the primary choice today because the usual primary choice had a big spiky tree across it. Sikem was pretty convinced that he’d rather just go home than across a baby Doug fir (which would undoubtedly tickle his sensitive belly) and into the narrow, dark, wooded passageway that was patently not pointing toward home. He tried backing up, and turning, and backing and turning, and simply not going, for several long minutes. I eventually stopped playing around, though, and he went. We wandered off into a wilderness I hadn’t visited in the last several years, Sadie the inexhaustible puppy bounding along behind us, until we finally came to a big crossroads and Sikem very decidedly turned left when I thought we should go straight. I was ready to head for home, and I asked him if he was sure; yes, he was. No question. It turns out he was right, and a good thing, too. I think we were out about three hours. Added to my two hours on Shadow yesterday, that’s a lot of hard labor for my ass. And it shows. Or rather, it would, but it doesn’t.

I hadn’t seen the cows for a couple days, and even though they hadn’t gotten out all summer, I had started to worry, so the dogs and I went for a walk to find them this morning. Evidently, they’d forgotten about people, because once we did find them, somewhere in the back part of their 60 acre grazing ground, they came back to civilization. About 30 minutes after we got back, they were down eating their two days’ worth of grain. Right, PEOPLE! They feed us tasty things! A’s right—they’re very beautiful, with their kohl-rimmed eyes and silvery-white coats, and they look like they're muscling up nicely.

My thumbs are healed (well, the garlic-prick never really amounted to much. Nor, to be honest, did the ax-cident, considering the potential), the repaired tire hasn’t gone flat again, and I’ve had a couple days of communing with horses in chilly gold, dark green, and crimson nature.

My friend E loaned me his SLR camera, so I'll post some pics after I get back to Seattle and high speed internet. Although my Potlatch dial-up has been working swimmingly.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Sometimes It’s Good to Have a Fifth Wheel

I’m in Jerome Creek right now, and it’s a bit weird. It rained today, and so I didn’t go riding. What? Hello? If it’s raining tomorrow I’ll suck it up and ride anyway, but it was really raining pretty hard today. I can’t be that sad about it, though, because it’s been a dry summer and rain is definitely welcome. At least by the people who live here all the time.

I’m driving a rented Chevy Trailblazer right now (they discontinued the shorter name Blazer, which maybe implied “inferno” a bit too much, a couple years back. But that’s what this is.) It’s fine, you know. It’s not the 4-Runner, but it can’t be expected to be. It’s brand new, so I was hopeful that the stereo would have an iPod jack in it, but it doesn’t. It also doesn’t have a cassette player, of course—it’s one of those inconvenient middle designs—so I can’t use my old cassette adaptor. Ian picked me out some CDs from L&S’s collection before I hit the road, though, so I wasn’t bereft of entertainment.

I started with a recording of Godspell, then went on to Paul Simon, and then had a go at some Black Eyed Peas. And then I went with silence for the rest of the journey.

Right now I’m listening to my iPod’s “Alternative and Punk” genre, which is perfect for solitary introspection and cooking. I don’t know why I never listened to them before, since Ian’s owned the CDs for who knows how long, but I’ve really come to love the Decemberists in the last month or so. They’re just really awesome.

K was here last night but left this morning to join A in Seattle visiting relatives. We were strolling around this morning, me gathering the current information on feeding and whatnot for the animals, and we stopped by the Trailblazer.

“That looks like a pretty flat tire,” observed King.

“Wow. It sure does,” I replied.

“Did you notice anything on the way here?”

“Nope, I really didn’t.”

The right rear tire was completely flat. We discussed how to get it fixed and decided on just throwing it in the back of the farm pick-up (King was going to be driving the lighter weight, long-distance pick-up west) and I would take it in to Moscow to get it repaired. I would then bring it back and put it on and, before heading back to Seattle, drive the Trailblazer to Moscow to make sure I’d got the tire on well (assuming I’d gotten it on well enough to make it the 40 or so miles without being flung into a ditch). Then I remembered that the thing was rented, and that perhaps Enterprise would rather just deal with it themselves, in their own way, a way that didn’t involve farm trucks and city slickers replacing tires. I have changed tires before—Dad was a mechanic, and he felt that, if we were going to drive, we needed to be able to change our tires and our oil ourselves. But the last time I did that was probably almost 20 years ago.

Anyway, a charming elderly man came out and put on the spare (his wife came along and was also charming); I drove into Moscow with an exclamation point blinking at me from the control panel (it didn’t seem to be listed under “warning lights” in the owner’s manual but I assumed it had something to do with the spare—either being gone from its home, or a weird size compared to the other tires) and dropped off the car at the tire place. It was repaired and put back together within 15 minutes—culprit was a Philips head screwdriver. I hadn’t driven far enough on it to ruin the tire, which was good. The exclamation point also disappeared.

The only other time I’ve ever had a flat tire, it was coming out to visit K&A. This was about 15 years ago, and I was driving an old Ford Bronco (one of the big ones) back to Garfield that someone had borrowed from some friends of K&A’s. At the rest area at the intersection between Highway 26 and Highway 395, 60 miles from Ritzville (the nearest town), someone pointed out to me that one of my tires was low. He offered to put on the spare for me, but when we found the spare, it was flat too. So I called AAA and they sent out a tow truck from Ritzville. The guy brought an air compressor and pumped up the spare, which then showed a weird knot in the sidewall. He said “Well, I’m not sure it’ll get you all the way to Pullman. You’d better come up to Ritzville and get it checked out at the garage.” So I did.

I kid you not—when I pulled into Ritzville an hour later, there was no one around, and a tumbleweed tumbled slowly across the street in front of me. I laughed a trifle hysterically, then found the garage. They told me it’d probably last me another three hours, but probably not much beyond that. With that comforting thought, I continued on my way. I made it, and it only took me five hours longer than usual.

With the rain came the cold today, as I found when I woke up from my nap on the couch, stiff and a little groggy. I thought “split wood and warm yourself twice,” so out I went to the woodpile to make some kindling, so that I could then make a fire. Hard physical labor is perhaps not the first thing one should attempt upon first waking, particularly if one is cold and stiff, and I had some trouble getting the ax to work right. I just wasn’t getting any force into my swings, and the wood wasn’t splitting. I finally got one piece to crack, and then, knowing I shouldn’t, I held it in place with my left hand and raised the ax in my right hand.

When the ax came down, it didn’t, in fact, cut off my thumb. But it did cut it. Just a little. And it woke me up, so that after I had put on a bandaid and headed back outside, I was able to split the rest of the kindling just fine, thank you. And now the fire is lovely and warm. When I was cleaning garlic for dinner the pointy end of the skin of one clove punched a teeny hole in the pad of my right thumb. I thought “By the pricking of my thumbs; Something wicked this way comes,” as I watched the bead of blood well up. But I don’t think anything wicked is really coming. My accidents have rendered me for the time being the opposite of “all thumbs”, which is, I’ve discovered, for all practical purposes the same thing.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Our Summer by the Numbers

30 April: Date we left
around 50kg: weight of our baggage leaving the US
11: Countries visited
22: New stamps in my passport
6: Number of those stamps acquired in London (“Leave to enter for six months. Employment and recourse to public funds prohibited.”)
2: Countries which didn’t stamp me at all (Spain and Finland)
36° 35’: Southernmost latitude reached (Folegandros, Greece)
66° 39’: Northernmost latitude reached (Sinettä, Finland)
66° 32’: Arctic Circle
3: Number of reindeer we passed wandering down the middle of the road
3: Time zones visited
12: Modes of transport utilized
15: Ferries taken
4: Cars rented
2: Cars enjoyed, of those rented (the Ford Focus in Scotland, and the Saab in Sweden)
12: Flights taken
5: Flights in business class (i.e. not quite enough of them)
7: Flights using airline miles (including all of those in business class)
8: Hours flights were delayed
12: Pizzas eaten
0: Pizzas eaten in Naples
11: Pizzas eaten north of Latitude 51° 30’ (Naples is at 40° 51’)
around 70: Total number of pork-centered dinners eaten
15: Friends visited
37: Nights spent with friends, or in friends’ houses (i.e. FREE)
2: Relatives who visited us
11: Most nights slept in one place (Porto Côvo, Portugal)
5: Total number of days spent apart (I went to Phoenix)
118: Total days spent together
2800: Total hours spent together (taking into account my horseback rides)
0: Total number of serious fights
around 100kg: Weight of our baggage returning to the US
31 August: Date we returned

Friday, September 07, 2007


For the last four months, every time I heard any voice speaking American English, it was a friend of mine. This is not entirely without exception, but pretty darn close. And so, I’ve evidently developed the association American accent=someone I know. Which means that any time I’m in public—restaurants, stores, whatever—and I hear someone talking with an American accent (which, face it, is virtually everyone here), I think I must know them. I keep being distracted from the people I’m with to glance around the place and see who else I know. It was all the weirder the other day when I was out to lunch with my grandma, and the person sitting at the table behind her had just come back—like, maybe the day after us—from Sweden and England. She was talking about accidentally speaking Swedish to little kids when she got back to England, and then about seeing Harry and Wills at the memorial service they organized for their mom, which took place the day we left. But no, I really didn’t know her.

Monday, September 03, 2007


It always takes some time to get photos uploaded into Blogger, so I decided to use a different Google product instead--Picasa Web Albums. So please click here to see the rest of our trip.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Back in the USA

Just a quick post to say that we arrived safely at SeaTac this evening around 7:30, only 3 hours later than scheduled (some issue at Heathrow totally unrelated to safety or health or the state of repair of our plane, which was quite fine). Ian's sound asleep, and I'm almost there. Spackle remembered us, and seemed to be thrilled to again be around people who actually like his kisses. He kissed us a lot, which we both thought was very sweet. Mom and Marsh and Loper are also in good health, although less licky.

Look for more pictures and more stories for at least a little while yet!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Something That Keeps Sweden From Being Dull in Its Wholesomeness:

The Raggare (pronounced ROG-are-ay). These folks are evidently dedicated to life in the 50’s. Not the 50’s in Sweden, however; the 50’s in the good ol’ US of A. The main display of this lifestyle is a vintage 50’s American car (or, if you can't find one of those, any vintage American car). In the summer, groups of Raggare occasionally get together and cruise for several hours through a predetermined small town. We happened to be privy to one of these cruises, on our anniversary in Härnösand, when by some fortuitous trick of fate we found ourselves seated by a window in a restaurant on one of the main corners of the cruising route.

I tell you, it was surreal. Classic American car after classic American car, all apparently in mint condition and polished to the nines, full of people (some in 50’s period dress), blasting music (mostly strange Swedish music, although some people did have sock-hop tunes blaring). Some cars were driven by men who would’ve been youths in the 50’s; others by folks younger than me. Some had whole families in them, some convertibles had screeching girls sitting on the back of the back seat. The cruising went on for several hours. We discussed whether or not the prudent Swedes had replaced the engines with modern, fuel efficient models . . . but probably not.

Expensive hobby, but certainly fun to watch.

Monday, August 27, 2007

About Sweden

Sweden is very . . . wholesome. There’s nothing wrong with that; for the most part it’s really very sweet. People ride bikes everywhere. Their favorite thing to do in the late summer is pick berries or mushrooms and you see them heading off into the woods with large buckets as you drive down the road. They eat a lot of fiber for breakfast, and are evidently in bed at a reasonable hour—at least, all the restaurants, even the posh ones, close by 9:00pm*. The beds are invariably super comfortable, though, so I don’t really blame them for wanting to spend more time there. The beds are comfortable because of something they call the “bed mattress”—a sort of pillowtop that sits on top your mattress. When it stops being pillowy, you can toss it out and get a new one. Ian has some trouble with the whole bed mattress concept because the sheet is a flat sheet that’s just folded around the bed mattress rather than a fitted sheet that’s tucked in, and Ian is a bit of a squirmer in bed, so his sheet comes untucked most nights and he finds himself sleeping directly on the bed mattress, which isn’t quite as comfortable. On top are duvets, usually individual ones even if the mattress is double-wide (which it usually isn’t, but when it is and you have those two duvets? Heaven! Particularly if one of you is a covers stealer, Ian.). In the last hotel we stayed at, in Luleå, the bed mattresses were a full seven centimeters thick, and the duvets were down. Bliss.

We did a lot of driving over the last ten days, and the Swedes’ wholesomeness seems to extend to road etiquette as well. Usually, I tend to consider the speed limit a lower limit when I’m driving. I don’t drive much faster than I’m supposed to (maybe 5 or 7 mph over), but I do drive consistently faster. The Swedes, on the other hand, apparently don’t even aspire to reach the speed limit, let alone surpass it. That would be lawbreaking and therefore unwholesome. There aren’t very many people here in this huge country, so there aren’t a lot of multilane roads, so passing people who are going slower than you isn’t totally easy, although there are a couple tools in place. There are frequent second lanes along major roads like the E-4, so for a lot of your drive, if you’re stuck behind someone who’s hovering around 90 when the limit is 110, you can pass easily in a minute or two. For areas of the E-4 where there aren’t passing lanes for long stretches of road, there’s a different system. The lanes are quite wide, and the line along the shoulder is dotted. When the line in the middle is also dotted (which is most of the time), if you come up behind someone quickly, they move to the side—i.e. driving half in the lane and half on the shoulder, and you move to the middle—i.e. driving half in the lane and half in the oncoming lane—and around them. Oncoming traffic knows the drill, so it moves over to be partially on the shoulder if necessary.

In theory.

What actually happens is that people don’t pay attention to anyone behind them, so they don’t move over onto the capacious shoulder, and instead frequently hug the center line (although not with the kind of consistency that would make you feel safe passing on the right, although you do have room to do so), thus mostly obscuring your view to oncoming traffic. Eventually you have to pass anyway because you’re going crazy hovering behind this undoubtedly very sweet person who is steadfastly refusing to get within 12 kph of the limit, so you rush out onto the other side of the road and hope that oncoming traffic, if there is any, sees you barreling down and moves over to the side as expected.

In the event, we made it here to Stockholm safely, and dropped off the car at the airport with no trouble whatsoever.

We all seem to be alive and well still. Shockingly, no ill effects from the surströmming.

*Note: not in Stockholm, which is a vibrant big city like other vibrant big cities.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Happy Sixth Anniversary

Ian and I celebrated our sixth anniversary on August 18th with some good friends. In honor of our six years together, I agreed, under duress, to take part in a ceremony that is not only not going to be repeated exactly as we performed it; it’s not going to be repeated even in spirit. The six of us ate, for lunch, surströmming, the Swedish traditional dish of fermented herring. This was the last time I celebrate my anniversary by eating any culture’s shock cuisine. No Thai Ten Thousand Year Old Egg, no Icelandic Hákarl, not even any durian. And definitely not fermented fish from anywhere.

Wait, you say, fermented fish?


To make surströmming, in May you take some herrings and remove their heads and their guts (although you leave the roe and the milt), then you put them in a huge vat with salt and water. You keep them at a particular temperature and you stir them a few times over the next few weeks. Then you seal them in smaller barrels for the following few weeks and shake them around periodically, then you tin them and let them sit for a few more weeks. Ten days before the third Friday in August, and not before, you give the tins to people as gifts.

Because the fish continues to “ferment” (i.e. “rot”) in the tins, the tins can develop a rounded, botulistic appearance. The contents are therefore also pressurized, and can explode upon opening, thus drenching the poor, misguided would-be eater with a sulfurous, sewage-smelling liquid that will ruin their clothing, and several layers of skin, forever.

I felt that it should’ve been a sign to us all (and not just me) that A, who is Swedish and whose mother loves surströmming, had never tasted it and had wondered, in fact, how her mother could eat it all these years. But even A thought it might be a good time to give it a try. After all, it was the season, and we were in the part of Sweden where surströmming is produced.

So here’s how you eat it:

You take a piece of large, pill-shaped soft flatbread and butter it. On it you put chopped onion, cubed cooked potato (a particular kind, but the Swedes are really into their potatoes and I have no idea what they all are, so just any old white potato will do—believe me, it’s not the potato that matters), and as much surströmming as you think you can handle (for us, it was one filet each, which turned out to be wildly optimistic). With the sandwich, you drink snaps, which is Swedish schnapps (traditionally flavored with caraway—we had a sampler of small bottles flavored with everything from caraway and dill to St John’s Wort and something translated as “bog myrtle”) and milk. Everyone agreed, kind of without me, that the idea of drinking milk and snaps sounded disgusting, so we didn’t have any milk. You don’t mix them together, though; they’re drunk in succession. I kept saying, to no avail, “but rotted fish doesn’t sound disgusting?”

The fun part of the day was that we rented kayaks and paddled around in the protected bays near Härnösand, and so we were able to create our garbage sandwiches out in the open air far from where we were sleeping. And we had brought plenty of cheese, brats, mustard, potato salad, biscuits, chocolate, and gorp, so when, as I had predicted all along, the sandwiches weren’t found to be surprisingly tasty, or even edible at all, we had plenty of other things to eat to help us forget our folly.

We did have varying degrees of success with the surströmming sandwiches themselves.

Ian ate his entire sandwich, and even took a moment to cast a barb my way, suggesting that I wouldn’t actually chew bites of this sandwich 54 times. He was right; I spit my first bite out after maybe 4 chews, recognizing that I was moments away from gut-clenching puking. Deane ate his entire sandwich, although it can’t be said that he enjoyed the experience. He was going to bring a can home for a friend (they’re flying SAS; British Airways and Air France among others, don’t allow it onboard) but he’s afraid the friend would expect him to eat some, too, and he can’t face that again. Erika spit out her first bite, then took another with a homeopathic amount of fish and managed to swallow that. A swallowed her first bite, but pulled the rest of the fish out of the sandwich to finish it (the sandwich, that is). She commented that it was a pleasure to discover that the thing she’d been avoiding for so many years actually was a good thing to avoid. G spit out his first bite, too, and marveled at the human anatomy and the gag-reflex which was so clearly designed to keep him from eating things that would poison him, but then decided that, since he knew with his brain that the fish was edible, he’d force himself to eat some anyway. I told him his gag reflex wasn’t likely to work so well for him in the future, since he’d so clearly and immediately scorned its powers.

But what did surströmming taste like? Not fish, actually. It tasted slightly sweet, and a lot like the way raw sewage smells, and even more like the smell of the absolute worst slimy, greasy stinky thing your dog has ever rolled in.

It did not taste like food.

But the kayaking was beautiful, and the company excellent, and the Italian dinner tasty (although the kitchen closed at 9:00pm on a Saturday night, which was so un-Italian as to be comical, almost, except I didn’t get dessert). And now we’re on a ferry heading across the Gulf of Bothnia to Finland.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"It’s a Very Deep Cavity"

We’re here in Härnösand (excuse the misspelling last time), which is a beautiful little seaside town. It’s a higher latitude than Anchorage, so even in mid-August it’s light until late at night. And it’s light early, of course. I’ve developed the practice, in these Northern climes, of putting my kikoy over my face after I use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Last night I did it so automatically that I was surprised to find it over my eyes this morning, and had a brief, irrational fear that someone was trying to suffocate me (that’s not actually true. I said it for comic reasons.)

Anyway, I decided a couple days ago that it was maybe not such a good idea to wait until September to get my tooth checked out, so A looked into a dentist for me here. And I went yesterday, and it’s good that I did. My back left molar had a deep cavity, which the dentist, disturbingly, showed me on the film. It went pretty close to the root. So she shot me up with Novocain, drilled a bit, and gave me a temporary filling because she didn’t want to risk the need of a root canal then and there. Supposedly the decay that she left in the tooth will stop now that it’s not being fed by tasty sausage (or something like that), and in about six months I can have my real dentist (wherever that will be), fix it for real.

The two meals I’ve eaten since the fixing and the wearing off of the numbing have been a pleasure of no pain.

This was also an interesting experience because she was only the second dentist I’ve ever seen in my life. My other dentist I’ve been going to since I was 2 years old, my mom goes to him, and my grandma goes to him. He’s known us long enough for my grandma to tell him family gossip (i.e. I went in for a routine cleaning about 10 days after meeting Ian and he said “So! I hear you have a new man in your life!” Hello? I thought. You’re my dentist.), and for him to treat us with a bit of irreverence (i.e. about 3 years ago, my then 89-year-old grandmother needed some dental surgery. When trying to determine whether to recommend surgery or simply a patch, Dr. Hardy said “Be honest with me, Bea, how much longer are you planning to live?” And she said “At least ten more years!” and so he recommended the surgery).

Anyway, off we go on a two-day adventure of hiking and kayaking that G&A have kept somewhat secret from us (not that that would be hard, as we know nothing of the area).

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Soft Closing

Ian and I are due back in Seattle on August 31, about 2 ½ weeks from now. Tonight, however, is our last night of independent adventures. Tomorrow we go to Sweden where we’ll meet up with my brother and sister-in-law. We’ll spend about 2 weeks with them, and also visit a dear friend from graduate school and his wife (who’s Swedish), who have just moved to Härnosänd. With Deane and Erika we’ll go to Finland for 5 days or something, then they head back to the US and we spend 3 more nights in London with our bed bug-free friends before we go home.

So how, you might ask, have we spent our last hours alone? I’d like to say we spent them romantically, and successfully achieving lots of sightseeing and exercise and tasty meals and exciting adventures, and actually, those things are all true. However, my body seems to have decided that it would be best for me to stop traveling for awhile, so nothing we did the last couple days was entirely the way we’d pictured it.

First of all, about the time we left London last time I developed a toothache. I seem to have an infected gum somewhere up around my molars on the left side. There’s always been a big gap between these two teeth, and I floss every day, but stuff gets stuck there. I don’t know if it was popcorn or something else, but evidently something got there and went a bit off (I know, disgusting, but you only have to read about it). Anyway, I’ve found that if I floss religiously after every meal instead of merely once a day, I can keep it pretty well under control. It’s pretty amazing, actually, how much goes in there—it’s like a black hole in my mouth (actually, maybe it is). I can run the floss through 7 or 8 times and still come out with stuff. I don’t know where it’s all coming from. I expect I should make a dentist appointment for soon after the 31st.

Second, it’s been that unmentionable time, which is always fun, particularly when traveling unknown numbers of hours on public transportation.

Third, two days ago in the evening of the day we arrived in Cesis, I realized I was coming down with some sort of cold. I had a sore throat, and it boded poorly for a good night’s sleep. I was right, I didn’t sleep well. And so yesterday morning, instead of being excited and gung-ho about touring “Latvia’s most Latvian town” and maybe taking an afternoon bike ride around the surrounding countryside, it was all I could do to drag myself out of bed and into town to hobble around for 3 hours (including an hour sitting and eating lunch). One of the reasons I left the room was that my throat hurt too much to sleep, so I thought I might as well go do something.

When we got back to our room after lunch yesterday I decided I’d had enough, however, so I pulled out my handy pack of extra Tylenol with codeine from my surgery in January, took 1 ½ pills, and slept for several hours in the afternoon while Ian worked (Ian made up a story for me to distract me from my awful, awful throat while I was waiting for the drugs to kick in. That part was very romantic and sweet). After dinner last night we shuffled around our neighborhood (strange, strange Soviet ruins and crumbling “tractor parking” sheds and whatnot from the old communal agriculture practices), I took another 1 ½ pills, and slept well all night long. This morning my throat was fine.

But, fourth, I noticed my left hip bothering me a bit. It really wasn’t too bad until we’d arrived back in Riga after our one adventure. Being the practical people we are, we’d purchased train tickets for our return to Riga upon arriving at the station on Friday evening. The train had been FULL, and we didn’t want to miss our chance to get back to the big city. This morning we checked out of our hotel at 11:00 and the agent called a taxi for us; at 11:20 she called another taxi for us; at 11:35 it arrived and took us to the station. Only a few people were waiting on the platform and we had about 10 minutes until our noon train, so I went off to the WC, which was the most disgusting thing I’ve seen since being in Kenya 11 years ago. It was just holes, and they were “piled” with filth. Blech. Anyway, just before noon a train arrived with RIGA on the front and everyone got off. We got on, assuming it would reverse direction and go back to town. But then we saw two conductors through a window so Ian asked, and they motioned us frantically “get off the train!” They managed to explain that the next train to Riga was at 3:00; we showed them our tickets, and they said “Autobus!” and so we grabbed our bags willy-nilly (not in the balanced and practical way I carry them when I’m being photographed) and ran out to the parking lot. For some reason, the bus driver was still there 1 minute or so after noon (they are very punctual leavers), and waited for us to fling our back packs under the bus and pant on. The bus evidently got very full as well; I wouldn’t know, because I managed to sleep for 1 ½ hours of the 2 hour journey. When we got off the bus in Riga, my hip was suddenly killing me.

We caught a taxi to our hotel where the elevator was broken (in the newest place we’ve stayed, after all our worry about the spectacularly ugly place in Lithuania), so we hauled our bags up to the 5th floor (which, I remind you, really is the 5th floor in the Baltics), washed a bit more laundry, and collapsed on our beds in the humid heat and I slept another two hours.

And tonight, our last night on the road alone, of course I’m typing away on my computer and Ian’s across the room typing away on his.

Things are good.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Hill of Crosses

These pictures are the reason we went to Lithuania in the first place. Crosses were planted on this small hillock for the first time several centuries ago, probably before Christianity came to Lithuania, so some have (had?) pagan roots. During the Soviet occupation it was illegal to plant crosses (which are planted for everything from celebration of life to mourning death), but people did it anyway. The story goes that everything was bulldozed off the hillock at least 3 times, and the final time it was fenced and a moat was dug around it . . . but there were new crosses by the next morning, anyway. Now, it's estimated that there are over 400,000 crosses at the site, all sizes and materials. It was really, really neat to see.

More Baltic Pics

A street-side flower market in Riga.

A view of Old Town Riga.

We've seen tons of storks this summer--lots in the Alentejo in Portugal, and lots in the Baltics. These are in Lithuania.

Our "spectacularly ugly" hotel. Our room is in the top left corner, under "HO". I'll note here that the windows open completely up, so you could easily jump out. I'll also note here that if you close them, the barking dogs and singing drunkards are pretty much silenced. So we closed them the second night.

The mysterious "SPECTRUM" channel. This is all it ever did.

No wonder I'm tired.

Baltics Pictures

Beautiful lighthouse on Kihnu, brought from England.

Ian next to some famous accordion player in Pärnu.

Awesome, awesome upside down teeter-totters.

The crowd outside our hotel in Pärnu, At 3:30am. Grrr.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Old School Backpacking

I’m tired. My calves, after hucking around my 45 pound estimated combined total weight backpacks, are sore. There was noise from the plaza below us last night (officious small trotting dog, barking importantly and stridently for 20 or 30 minutes around 1:00am and again around 4:00am, and about 8 boys singing Beatles songs at 3:30am) which made my sleep fitful, and I kept waking up from dreams of being shot in my right calf, or stung by a scorpion, or kicked by a horse, or something else awful and inconvenient for the traveler relying on her legs as transport.

Yes, that’s right, for the first time all summer, we’ve really been leading a backpacker life. Since arriving in the Baltics we haven’t spent more than 3 nights in a single place, and that was Riga when we first arrived. A quick run-down: Riga 3, Kihnu 2, Pärnu 2, Riga 1 (more on this in a moment), Šiauliai 2, and then Cēsis 2 and Riga 1 to finish up before Sweden.

One drawback to staying such a short time in each place is that we either don’t have time to find out where to get our laundry done, or we find out but we’re leaving before they can get to it. This means that I take on the housewifely role of washing our clothes by hand while Ian works, which is fine, but doesn’t do much for my 34-year-old back that’s not used to struggles of carrying all I want to have with me, and really doesn’t recover as quickly as my 20-year-old back did. Did I ever collapse on a bed, exhausted, after hauling my bags two or three kilometers from the bus station when I was 20? I have no memory at all of such weakness.

Struggles with aging aside, we’ve enjoyed our time in the Baltics. I realize that I wasn’t quite fair to the fashionistas of these former Soviet republics—I was swayed by what I saw for sale at the giant market in Riga, which is not where the young and hip shop. The young and hip (women at least) have a tendency toward jeans and short tops (when will that trend finally make the rounds and disappear???) and micro minis whether or not they’re really fit enough to pull it off . . . so, just like home. Eastern Europeans in particular seem to have less of an obsession with keeping undergarments under, notably bras. Straps are showing all over the place (i.e. a halter top tank with a regular bra with shoulder straps under it), frequently the “invisible” ones which aren’t, but just as frequently whatever color they happen to be. Lots of tops are low-cut in the front, and the bra—which doesn’t appear to be a part of the statement—is just readily visible. It’s a little prudish of me to dislike this; after all, everyone’s wearing them. But I prefer mine to be a bit more mysterious. The other day Ian was noticing that hair color is more creative here than in Western Europe. There’s lots of blondes, of course, many of them even natural. But there are also lots of blonds with pink or blue streaks, or one I saw the other day with pink and blue and orange all together, which was pretty spectacular. I’ve seen several of the blond-on-top/black-underneath style as well.

The food in general is creamy and meaty. Lettuce isn’t that common (although cabbage is readily available). Fish is also easy to find, and often smoked. Organic yoghurt was easy to find in a supermarket in Lithuania, not so much in Latvia or Estonia.

Okay, so why the extra day in Riga? Well, Ian found out last weekend that he’d inadvertently failed to include one bit of documentation with his NZ application, so he had to make a statement and get it notarized, then send it off to London. The notarization he did in Estonia—it turned out to be surprisingly easy, and cost $1.04 (also cheap in Estonia—a 90-minute massage I had for $35. And internet—the Estonian government decided that free WiFi was a basic human right, so you see signs up everywhere. Parks, service stations, restaurants, ferry docks. Very handy.) It appeared that FedEx had an office near our original hotel in Riga, so we thought we’d arrive after our 3-hour bus trip from Pärnu, drop our bags in Left Luggage, nip out to the edge of town to FedEx the letter, collect our bags and train tickets to Šiauliai, and get to Lithuania all in the same day.

In the event, we couldn’t buy a train ticket to Šiauliai (we found later that buses were available); FedEx was gone (although still listed in the lobby of the building); Latvian free WiFi on a random dusty street on the industrial edge of town detailed several UPS options including hotel lobbies which we checked but none checked out; we bought a phone card and slowly ticked down $2 worth of time on hold with the UPS number before giving up; at this time, realizing we’d have to run to get a bus to a town where we didn’t have lodging worked out yet and we still needed to mail this letter and it was almost 6pm, we called a hotel close by in Old Town Riga and booked in for an unexpected nights’ stay.

It was awesome. A giant room, breakfast included, quiet, internet. With a place to shower and lay his head, Ian recovered his equilibrium and found more UPS information, so the next morning we successfully mailed the letter then caught a midday bus to Šiauliai.
We’ve read that the Lithuanians, who are more emotional and outgoing than their near neighbors, are the Italians of the Baltics, and while we haven’t spent quite enough time in either Italy or the Baltics to cast judgment on this statement, I will say that when we were seated on the bus waiting for it to leave, several middle-aged very drunk Lithuanian men boarded in a boozy cloud and a series of ins-and-outs and movement of bags clearly designed to trick the driver into thinking they had five tickets when all they had was four. This behavior seemed somewhat Neapolitan from my perspective; the fact that the driver did notice, and did make them buy a fifth ticket did not, however. I’m sure they could’ve been worse, but a couple sturdy matrons fixed them with the evil eye early on and they mostly passed out as soon as we left the station. At one point someone’s bottle of some kind of amber booze tumbled down the aisle and several people cracked up.

In Šiauliai, we walked directly to the Soviet-era Hotel Šiauliai, described in our Lonely Planet as “spectacularly ugly but with amazing views from the 14th floor”, and booked into a room on that illustrious floor. It is glorious—a huge refurbished room with separate rooms for toilet and bath, a desk, a mini-fridge, and a large TV (which shows a depressing array of Western movies and TV shows that have been dubbed Eastern Europe-style, which is one monotone male voice speaking all the words not even on a separate track, but just a little louder than the English going on under him so you can almost make out what Grace is saying to Will; and a bemusing channel called “SPECTRUM”, which simply shows a spectrograph). Our view is spectacular . . . except in the middle of the night, when the square 14 floors below is evidently very popular with all sorts of creatures trying out their voices. It seems that 14 floors of concrete do nothing to dull sound.

The elevator is the only other issue we have with our hotel. There are three, and each one is separate from the others. If you’re in the lobby, there’s a monitor that says which floor each elevator is on, so choose wisely or you could be in for a long wait. There are also at least two young women’s soccer teams staying here—evidently there’s some sort of tournament going on in the town—and so frequently there are already 8 or 10 girls waiting to get on, too. These elevators are pretty old-school. I’m not sure how an analogue elevator works, but these seem to use that technology. First, when you call the elevator you push a black bakelite button and it stays in. It pops out when the elevator arrives, but you don’t really notice the sound because of the soccer girls all around you. Inside the elevator, there are several other bakelite buttons. You push “14” and up you go, getting slower and creakier and jerkier the higher you ascend. At floor 14, the button snaps out sharply and the elevator grinds and judders to a halt, making you jump and wonder if, in fact, you’re going to make it out into your hall, or if the narrow metal box you’re currently stuck in is going to give up and plunge back to earth. So far we’ve made it out.

The other day we were descending and all of a sudden, on floor 12, the button we’d pushed, for floor 1 (an aside—they count floors like we do here—1 is ground, etc), popped out loudly and unexpectedly and the doors opened. I got out immediately because clearly the elevator didn’t want us in anymore, and Ian followed me. We punched a different button and finished our journey in a different lift. Ian suggested though, and this seems likely, that a bunch of girls on floor 12 pushed buttons for all three elevators, and since ours was going to pass 12 on its way down, its analog system was reset. Nothing sinister, but a bit unnerving at the time. We’ve decided to take separate elevators down with our bags tomorrow, because things seemed particularly difficult on the way up the first time.

And I’m going to stop here because this has gotten way too long, and because I’m done.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ugly Americans

This is something that I really didn’t think about much when we left home at the end of April. I had some concern that traveling in Europe as an American, and therefore someone who was incriminated in the continuing disaster that is our President, would cause some problems for us, but it hasn’t at all. Obviously there has been mention—in Greece, one of our hosts continually referred to him as “the bush” (it sounded like lower case, although he never wrote it out); and in Portugal several people went on and on about how he was the most hated leader in the world right now and really an awful, awful man, only to pause far into their tirades to ask if we, in fact, liked Bush. Since we patently don’t, this was always an entertaining part of the conversation for us. I’m assuming that if we’d answered in the affirmative, they would simply have given us a pitying look and gone on with their bashing.

Current specific reasons to loathe Americans aside, there is the enduring impression of Americans as ugly, boorish, fat, loud, styleless, cultureless, and clueless. They trample over cobbled streets and millennia-old cultures in their khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and photographer’s vests, dripping ice cream on antiquities and speaking too loudly in museums. They complain about foods, and lines, and heat, and traffic, and noise, and assume that everyone in the world should speak English to them.

This, at least, is what “conscientious travelers,” such as ourselves, believe the world thinks about Americans. And it may . . . but to be honest, I have no first-hand experience with this belief. Admittedly, in part this is because I haven’t traveled to “beaten path” destinations in years. I have noticed Brits in Greece being by far the loudest people in the restaurant (talking about how uncouth Americans were no less, and complaining about Greek food, while Ian and I sat and quietly enjoyed our delicious meal); Australians using any excuse to get falling-down drunk in public; large groups of young German men, shouting drunk, staggering down streets in the evening, urinating against buildings in not-so-deserted alleyways. When we took a day trip to Bodrum, Turkey, several years ago, it was not overweight middle-aged Americans wandering around the bazaar in this Muslim country in t-shirts over swim suit bottoms, nor was it a chubby American 12-year-old wearing too-tight sweats with “tasty” across the ass; nor was it a tall, slender, blonde American eating lunch in local restaurant in a pair of turquoise lycra boy shorts and matching string bikini top. In other words, lots of people are ugly on vacation.

I tend to avoid the serious ugliness. For one, I rarely go to museums so I’m not likely to drip my ice cream on something priceless. I don’t get publicly falling-down drunk with big bands of boys (when I did get drunk once long ago with Australians, it was in the privacy of our guest house). You will not catch me dead anywhere in a photographer’s vest, and Hawaiian shirts definitely have their place and it’s Hawaii or a bowling alley. I like heat, traffic irritates me but, except in Seattle, I don’t take it personally, and I don’t really like noise so I typically travel in more rural areas.

I try to learn at least some basics in the language of the country I’m in, and I fancy myself fairly good with pronunciation. I certainly don’t assume people will understand me better if I talk more loudly.

None of this really affected us in a serious way for the first three months of our trip, though. We started in Greece, and not only can we order food using Greek words, we can even read them in Greek script, so we’re way ahead of most tourists plying the Cyclades as we did. Not only that; the Greeks, along with most other Europeans, study English in school and happily speak it both with native English speakers and with all the rest of the Europeans who’ve learned English in school. Then we were in Scotland, and while we couldn’t necessarily always understand what people said to us, they were theoretically speaking the same language and we usually figured out the meanings pretty quickly. Then we were in Portugal, and I actually have a good working grasp of Portuguese, so our 5 ½ weeks there were a pleasure of integrating into a culture not our own.

And then we came to Latvia, and I knew nothing. I had read enough of the Lonely Planet to know that Latvian and Lithuanian are the two remaining surviving languages of their particular branch of the Indo-European family, and that Estonian and Finnish and Hungarian are related to each other and not closely related at all to any other language on earth, and that Russian is spoken pretty readily in the Baltics as well because of the 30 years of Soviet rule (and I actually heard two little girls speaking it—one said “nyet” on the phone and the other called “babushka!” in the crowded market, thereby exhausting my complete repertoire of Russian words aside from glasnost and perestroika and whatnot from the 80s) . . . and I laboriously taught myself paldies, which is not like “thank you” in any other language I’ve ever heard (it’s Latvian). Even arrigato in Japanese is from the Portuguese obrigado.

I found myself shrinking on the streets of Riga, trying to take up less space than usual, observing the people around me but trying to stay out of their way. When I interacted with any locals, I felt, and looked I’m sure, apologetic and contrite and insecure, because all I could do was point at what I wanted. I was trying so hard to avoid assuming people should speak to me in my language simply because I didn’t understand theirs, that I basically stopped interacting with people at all. I felt guilty about being an American. I felt guilty about being me.

After one long day of this, I got mad. After all, I’m me, and there’s nothing I can—or want to—do about it. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my strengths, I accept and work on my weaknesses, and I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my life. One of those opportunities has been the freedom to travel, and with that freedom, the chance to learn about the world in a way uncommon to most of the other 7 billion inhabitants of this planet. And so, cast away guilt! If a Swede considers me to be uncouth and boorish because I’ve studied French and Swahili and Portuguese but not Swedish, that’s not my problem. If a Latvian is frustrated that I don’t speak Latvian or Russian and therefore can’t make my needs speedily known, well, I’ve tried my best.

I have a Master’s degree in linguistics, and perhaps this is part of my problem. I know how important language is (even just accent) for the coherence of a society. I can mourn the fact that languages, like plants and animals and customs, are dying out all the time. I can recognize similarities between languages—this skill helps me fake my way through Spain and Italy, and helps me chronicle the European history of things like the tomato, which is, interestingly, tomato in all the countries I’ve been in so far. I’m well-grounded in how language works and I’m keenly observant of paralinguistic cues, so I have pretty good situational comprehension. And so I keep thinking that some part of my subconscious mind will take over, and the languages will just seep in.

Talking and language are very important to me; they always have been. My mother reminds me of a trip to Brazil when I was about 10, to visit friends she’d made in the Peace Corps. Even though, for several months before we left, everything in the house had been labeled in Portuguese and she had insisted our dinner conversation be conducted entirely in Portuguese, I couldn’t speak much of it at all by the time we arrived, and I found this difficult to deal with. I was a talker, and there wasn’t anyone to talk to. My brother hated having to talk to people, so he was in his element.

I realized something the other day, though. Yes, language ability is important, and it is one indicator of multicultural sensitivity or ugly boorishness. But it’s not the only thing. Observation, attire, awareness, openness—all are valuable as well. And so I’ll continue to do my best, as I always do, in all these categories as well as in language. And I will focus my grateful energy on appreciating the places I’m visiting to the fullness of my ability.

And I will no longer feel guilt for who I am.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

You Can’t Have It Both Ways

About an hour ago an email arrived from my brother, who was due to leave the house for Sweden in an hour, detailing a bill I’d just received there for mowing on Orcas Island. Ian and I had discussed mowing with our southern neighbor before we left town in April, and asked that, when she had her piece mowed, she get in touch with us because maybe we’d have the guy mow ours as well. I’m not sure if we detailed with her exactly which part of our land we wanted to have mowed; it probably didn’t occur to us to worry about it, because all evidence pointed only to the southern parts having been mowed for, oh, at least 10 years.

Unfortunately, we should’ve been more detailed. The bill includes not only mowing the southern part, but also north pasture, which we’d decided to leave fallow for the next few years, and chipping all the young Douglas firs and alders in the middle of it. This is what makes me sad. I had been planning on cutting our first Christmas tree from that herd of firs, and I was also rejoicing that, in 20 or 30 years, we’d actually have some trees in addition to 30 acres of grassland. Not only that; mowing all that rough pasture and chipping all those trees was expensive, to the tune of a shocking number of nights on the road, even in Sweden.

No one’s to blame, of course. Our neighbor to the south honestly thought she knew what we wanted, and the man who did the mowing did the best he could. I suppose our laissez-faire attitude about land being able to take care of itself was to blame as much as anything, so we’ll pay the bill, meet the mower, and make sure we speak to him directly in the future.

Besides, trees grow back, and some number of years from now when we do have a house there and need a Christmas tree, it may not be the soaring 8 feet I was hoping for, but we’ll probably be able to find something to put on a tabletop.

But there you have it—a nomadic life may seem like a life of freedom, but there are costs to being an adult and owning things. Not only financial costs, but many, many niggling little details of bills and issues and whatnot, the large majority of which my brother has dealt with directly in order to make our lives easier.

Thank you, Deane, so much.