Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Can you say francobollo?

January 16, 2008

When traveling in another country, it’s often the everyday differences that stay with us. That’s why I love going into grocery stores, hardware stores, etc. Everything is a little (or a lot) different, from the signs on the walls, to the packaging, to the checkout lines. It can be humbling, too, when you have to ask for help while doing a basic task. That’s one of the reasons I feel compassion toward foreign travelers in the US.

In Italy a few months ago, I had a couple instances of “now what do I do?”

At the post office in Padova I couldn’t for the life of me remember the Italian word for stamp. (That would be francobollo.) My phrase book was useless and I didn’t have my postcards to wave about in universal sign language. I couldn’t just walk up to the counter because there were 15 of them, each with a flashing number. There had to be some system here, but what was it? I couldn’t find anyone who spoke English. Diane is puzzled by the number dispenserFinally, I went to the one clerk who wasn’t waiting on someone and kept saying, “stamps?, stamps?” and she knew what I meant. She took me back to the entrance and pointed to a bright yellow machine I’d totally overlooked, a complex multi-category “take-a-number” dispenser. She pushed the correct button, handed me my number, and led me to the correct line. I never would have figured out that one on my own.

Then, at the grocery store, also in friendly Padova, I was happy to find drinkable yogurt, olive crackers (yum!), and bananas. When I went to check out, the cashier held up my one lone banana, shaking her head, and said something to me. But what? “Scusi, non parlo Italiano,” I answered. Instead of chastising me and putting the banana aside, she said, “I show you. Come.” She led me back to the fruit section, placed the banana on the electronic scale and pushed the little banana picture to get a price label. “Grazie, grazie,“ I said with a wide smile. I was so grateful for her kindness, though I’m not sure the people behind me in line felt the same way.

Circulating in DC

January 11, 2008

I drove to DC for a weekend last month, my first visit to our nation’s capital in a couple years. I had many stops to make on Monday before heading home to North Carolina. From my digs in Chevy Chase, DC (thanks, Markoes!), I was to start at the “soon-to-open” Newseum near the Mall for a sneak preview at 10 a.m., then go to the Washington Post at 15th between L and M for lunch with my former Boston Globe travel editor and the current Post food editor Joe Yonan (I also finally met my Post travel editor John Deiner), and next head over to Georgetown to see a relative. I hoped to accomplish all this before afternoon rush hour.

I asked my DC pals which transportation to use and everyone had the same advice: “Park in Georgetown and take the Circulator.”The DC Circulator bus service The what? The DC Circulator is a tourist-friendly two-year-old bus service in DC with three lines that bridge popular stops: Convention Center-Waterfront, Georgetown-Union Station, and Smithsonian-National Gallery of Art. It runs every 10 minutes, stops frequently, and costs $1 a ride. Day and mutli-day passes are available, too. (All-day parking in Georgetown was a reasonable $12. Or was it $15? Ooops, I forgot!) While I had to change lines once, the bus strategy worked well, thanks especially to the helpful passenger on my first ride. And the Circulators are right purty too. They’re bright red, with oversized windows and doors.

Amazingly, I was on the road by 3 p.m., though I didn’t really leave DC until 3:30 because I somehow managed to get onto 395 North instead of South and ended up back in the city. That’s the kind of circulating I don’t advise.

Who is that man in red? Ask an Argentinian

January 9, 2008

Yesterday [Jan. 8] in Argentina, tens of thousands of people celebrated the life of “Gauchito Gil” (“little gaucho Gil)” on the 130th anniversary of his death. He is a thing of legend, the country’s Robin Hood. As Argentina’s economy has plummeted, Gil’s fame has soared.

In the fall of 2006, when Wessel and I traveled in Northwest Argentina, which is populated by mostly poor, indigenous people, we were intrigued by the mysterious red roadside shrines we saw. Wessel, of course, had to stop for a photo session at about 30 of them until Diane finally said, “enough already!”

Here is Wessel’s report:
I was fascinated by the red shrines along the highway. Roadside chapel for Gauchito GilA typical shrine consisted of a little house with a male saint inside dressed like a cowboy. Usually the house was painted red and surrounded by red flags and red banners with a text like “Gracias Gauchito Gil.” Sometimes it was tiny and very basic, a foot high, painted red and with a little cowboy statue inside. Other times it was elaborate, with a load of red banners. Clearly he was revered for something.

After we got home, I read up on this Argentine cowboy saint. The following is compiled from several sources, including Wikipedia entry and this interesting piece on NPR’s “Marketplace” on the anniversary of Gil’s death.

Gauchito Gil’s image on bannerLegend has it that Antonio Gil, a farm worker, was an army hero in his village. But when forced to return to battle, he deserted and fled to the mountains. He lived there as a gentle bandit, stealing from the rich and redistributing goods to the poor. In the end the police caught him. When he was about to be executed, he told one of the police officers his son would soon fall ill and that the father would pray for Gil’s forgiveness. The day Gil was executed, the police officer returned home to find that his son dying. He begged for Gil’s forgiveness. His son made a miraculous recovery, and Gil became a national hero.

Saddling up in Mongolia

January 7, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(published Jan. 6, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: I first heard from Randy in 2005, when his family was on a round-the-world trip. I couldn’t write about him then, but asked him to keep in touch. He emailed me the next year about his trip to Mongolia. His wife and teenage daughter decided to do their own thing in the States, and Dad went solo on his remote overseas adventure. When Randy returned, he sent me a whopping 50-page trip report. My eyes rolled — until I started reading it. It was full of description and dialogue. “Are you planning on writing a book?” I asked. He was working on it, he conceded. Keep at it, Randy!

WHO: Randy Schacher, 46, of Newton, Mass.

WHERE: Mongolia

WHEN: July and August 2007.

WHY: “I was looking for a country that would be remote, something adventurous and not in the 20th century,” Schacher said.

WORLD WANDERER: Schacher is no stranger to exotic travel. In 2004 and 2005 he and his family traveled around the world. “I’m a contract engineer for computers and I can take jobs that interest me for the period I need,” he said. For his solo trip to Mongolia (which also included stops in Japan, China, Thailand, and Germany), Schacher knew he wanted to go on a horseback ride. “Historically, the Mongols are avid horseback riders. That’s how they conquered Asia.”

SURVIVING THE SADDLE: A travel agent set up Schacher for a private trek over the steppes. “I had a guide, interpreter, and a luggage person, so we wouldn’t need pack animals.” Schacher hadn’t ridden a horse since college. “I started riding again in Acton for a couple weeks.” What Schacher didn’t know was that the Mongolian saddles were wooden, making them much harder than leather ones. “You stand in the stirrups when you’re riding. If you don’t, you bang your knees against the hard wooden saddle. But when you’re standing, your legs and arms are under stress,” he said. “Every day I got better. It was pretty much the adventure I was looking for; I was happy that I survived it.”

Ganaa (L) and Randy(R) in front of Temple Tourist Ger CampSTEPPE BY STEPPE: They stayed in gers, or yurts, sometimes in encampments with other tourists, mostly European. “We rode to several sites, a temple in the mountains, to huge rock formations, and through the countryside, over hills and through ravines,” Schacher said. “The steppes are just so vast.” They encountered yaks, sheep, stray camels, “and an occasional Mongol nomad riding his herd of a hundred horses.” His assumptions were challenged. “So many things in my preconceived notions were wrong,” Schacher said. “Like, about 95 percent of the country reads and writes since Russia took over. [Mongolia won its independence from China in 1921 with Soviet backing.] And there’s cellphone access everywhere.”

Randy with traveling companions of stuffed penguinsDRIVE, DESERT, DUNE: After the horse trek ended, Schacher joined a three-week driving tour, along with four other tourists, a Spaniard, a Briton, and two Russians. “The Gobi Desert was the most interesting and less developed,” he said. “We went to a dune bordering the valley called the singing sand dune, where the sand below the dunes is so compacted that it makes this vibration while you’re climbing.” They visited Kharakhorum, the ancient capital of Genghis Khan’s empire. “It was a beautiful place with lots of ancient rocks that were from the time of his grandchildren, with their names on it.”

ANCIENT GAMES: Schacher timed his trip to be in Ulan Bator, the capital, for the annual Naadam festival of archery, wrestling, and horseback riding, in competitions little changed from centuries past. “There are these big hulking guys in tiny blue and red suits,” Schacher said. “In Ultan Bator there’s a big festival; the locals scurry away to smaller ones in the country. We went to the opening ceremony, where they march to the stadium and have a huge band and bring out the nine flags of Genghis Khan. Later we went to the horse racing area 30 miles in the country. It was one long traffic jam.”

Mama mia, there’s a bassotto!

December 5, 2007

Padova petI photographed this “bassotto,” the Italian word for wiener dog, in November. I’m guessing it translates to something like “low rider” and that a female would be a bassotta. You Italian speakers can let me know. I was stall-shopping at the Wednesday morning market in the historic center of Padova, a university town about a half hour west of Venice by train. I wasn’t sure if the woman would let me take her picture. I tried to catch her eye to “ask” in body language, but she never even looked at me, so I took that as a yes.

The black-and-tan standard dachshund, who I tried to engage in niceties, wasn’t the least bit interested, as he was too busy sniffing for snacks. I was amused that virtually every breed of dog I saw that day, and there were many, was decked out in a coat. I guess that’s amore!

Gelato, make way for cioccolata calda

December 2, 2007

As soon as Wessel and I decided to spend Thanksgiving week in Italy, I started dreaming of cioccolata calda — hot chocolate. In 1986 (!) I spent a winter in Vicenza, a lovely city about an hour west of Venice, and I was addicted to cioccolata. It’s not so much a drink, but a pudding, always served with a spoon.

The first one I had on this trip was in the university town of Padova, on the piazza across from the duomo. I was worn out, while Wessel was still wandering about, so I stopped at a café. cioccolata caldaThe cioccolata was bellisima! I was in heaven. It was dark, rich chocolate and so thick that using the spoon was necessary. I take mine “senza panna,” ($3) but with whipped cream ($4) is always an option. I vowed to treat myself to a cioccolata daily.

Then a sad thing happened. No other cioccolatas lived up to that first one. One barista in Venice started to pour a powdered package into the cup when I order one. Basta! 

Elsewhere, they had the real goods, but they weren’t as good. They weren’t as rich or thick. It was like trading in the Dean’s Sweets truffle for a drugstore Easter bunny. Still, it’s nice to relive that first tazza (cup) and know that more heavenly cioccolatas are out there.

Coincidentally, today’s New York Times has an article on thick hot chocolate in New York in its Travel section.

For you at-home hot-chocolate cooks, I found a recipe online for thick hot chocolate and it was molta buona!

Right place, wrong time

November 8, 2007

A crazy thing happened before my recent nonstop Delta flight from Durham, NC, to Boston. The flight was scheduled to leave at 4:25 p.m. I got an email at 1:25 p.m. saying “we have just been advised of a time change.” The flight was rescheduled for 5:36 p.m. On the way to the airport, around 4 p.m., I got another email and an automated call to my cell saying there was another time change — to 8:42 p.m. I headed back home.
Around 7 p.m. I checked the status online, only to learn that my plane was on the runway awaiting takeoff! What??!!

I called Delta and was told “we’re sorry for your misunderstanding. You should have gone to the airport at the time your flight was originally scheduled to depart.”

Now that’s just ridiculous.

I had to rebook for the next morning, greatly inconveniencing many people and missing a meeting. Not to mention that the flight was at the crack o’ dawn, a time of day I do my best to avoid.

Later, Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said in an email, “occasionally we are able to recover from the delay more quickly than expected…. In certain situations, and it is not often, customers can find themselves with circumstances where they are unable to make their flight.”

Translation: There was no “misunderstanding.” I did the right thing, which turned out wrong.

For the record, Delta’s policy of alerting passengers about delays and cancellations is much appreciated. I just hope Delta doesn’t steer me to the right place at the wrong time again. 

Foot and mouth disease?

November 4, 2007

When I travel with Wessel, he does a thorough and spectacular “what-did-we-forget?” search before we check out of our room. He’ll often come up with something he found under the bed, or, more obvious, something I left on the nightstand. (I have been known to find his shampoo in the shower stall.) When I travel alone, I always intend to follow his lead, but more often than not I’m caught up in a mental and physical whirlwind and don’t really see what I’m looking at.

Still, when I returned home from England, having spent a few days alone there after Wessel went home, I could not believe that my electric toothbrush was not in my suitcase. I could picture it next to the sink in my beautiful bathroom at the Radisson Edwardian in Manchester, and I was so sure I’d packed it up. On the other hand, I’d had to leave my room at 5 a.m. to catch a taxi to the airport, so anything was possible.

Being an electric-toothbrush addict (my dentist endorses this obsession), I went out and spent $20 on a replacement toothbrush the next day. OK, it’s not a huge amount of money, but it was annoying.

Today, some four weeks later, I went to put on a pair of shoes I don’t often wear. toothbrush in shoeAs I stuck my foot into the right shoe, something blocked it. “What could that be?” I thought, scared it was a  rodent. Nope, it was my electric toothbrush. I’m guessing that I had shoved it through a small opening in the full, bulging suitcase, and it just happened to slide into the shoe. How I didn’t notice it when I unpacked is anyone’s guess.

You could say that I was caught with my  mouth in my foot. Sort of. It was good for a laugh.  And at least now I have a backup, just in case.

License to kill (a rental-car reservation)

November 1, 2007

As Wessel was driving me to the airport to go to my mom’s, near Tampa, Florida, I said, “I have this feeling I’m forgetting something really important.  Well, whatever I’m missing, I can get it there.”

Not quite. What I couldn’t get was another driver’s license. Arrrrgh!! Just before going up to the ticket counter I discovered that my driver’s license was nowhere to be found.

Wessel, already late for work, dashed home to see if he could 1) locate it and 2) bring it to me. (I did this for him with his passport once – and made it back in time!)

No luck.

Southwest said I could fly without a non-government-issued ID, but that I’d get the full pat-down and search. Then I thought about my rental car, through Dollar. This would not be good. Once in Tampa, the Dollar clerk said, “Sorry, there’s nothing we can do. We can’t rent you a car without your license in hand.” Period. 

Super Shuttle van at TPA airportMeanwhile, I counted my blessings that I could get a Super Shuttle van drive to Mom’s. Of course the “15 to 20 minutes” I was told I’d be waiting was more like 30. When I asked the ticket seller, “why do you say 15 to 20 minutes when you don’t really know?” she answered, “I’m sorry, hon, that’s what I’ve been told to say.” Good to know their policy.

At my mom’s, an hour later, I had a brilliant flash of one more place to look for my license — my rain jacket, which I’d luckily packed. Yep, I’d put my license there while on a bicycle ride a week earlier. There it was!! I’d had it all along.

Because I travel so much, I keep a packing list. At the top, in large letters, is my reminder to “take Swiss Army knife out of purse!” Now I’ll be adding: “Check for license!”

Bathroom blunder

October 27, 2007

One of the reasons I was excited about traveling to England last month was because it was the first time in years I’d be in a foreign country where I could actually speak the language. How relaxing! On Day One, I was reminded how being fluent didn’t mean being attentive. I could blame jet lag, but my friends would know better.The trip went like this: By plane from Durham, NC, to Atlanta to Munich to Manchester, England. By train: Manchester to Newcastle, a three-hour ride. About halfway through the trip I got up to use the loo.automated tubular contraption It was an automated tubular contraption, much like the one pictured here, but in this case tucked inside the hallway area between the conductor and the first car. I pushed the “open” button and the door slid open on its track, much like an elevator. Inside, I pushed the “close” and it closed.

As I was doing my business, I was shocked to hear the whir of the door as it slowly slid opened. While quickly but only partly pulling up my pants, I instinctively stood and reached to close the door, which was as ineffective as reaching for an automated car window on its way down.

I looked up to find an elderly woman watching me, while the male ticket taker had been polite enough to turn away.

“I’m so sorry, love, I guess you didn’t lock it, did you?” she said.

I guess I didn’t, did I?

I mumbled something while I found and stabbed at the “close” button, which, it turned out, was right next to the “lock” button.

“Leave it to the Yank,” I said with a red-faced smile as I exited.