Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pulled From The Pages: Surprise suprise

 September 28th

“Time for a mini break,” proclaimed Kathy as we fell into the sofa exhausted from our crazy schedules in post grad hell.

“Sounds great but where can we go that’s cheap?” I said, thinking of the paltry two hundred dollars in my bank account.  

 Midori hopped on the computer. “Leave it to me.”

Kathy and I stood behind her as she searched for cheap options taking into account we needed a country close to Japan and hopefully someplace we’d never been before.  After much debate, we finally settled on Korea.  Midori found a hotel and booked our tickets.

“We’re going to have a fantastic time. I heard the you can score unbelievable deals at mall after mall.”

I winked at Kathy. “I heard stuff is practically free.”

When we arrived in Seoul, Kathy and Midori where excited about all the great shopping ahead. They planned to spend at least two days in the malls.  I on the other hand, was looking forward to spending some quality time in a real bed. Because our apartment was in the traditional Japanese style, the three of us slept in the living room/bedroom in futons on the tatami mat floors. After two months, I had finally gotten used to waking up with a backache. Yet I still dreamed about a western bed.  

Midori was all smiles when she proudly said, “You are going to love the hotel I picked out. It’s just like home.”

I looked at her smiling face and wondered if putting her in charge of the hotel was such a good idea. “Do you mean America home or Japan home?”

 She threw back her shoulders. “Why Japan of course.”

There went my vision of a big fluffy western bed.

“You’re joking right?” said Kathy finally catching on.    

“You guys, it’s supposed to be really nice.”

Our first clue that the hotel was going to be anything but nice was when the taxi driver dropped us off and said, “Be careful. Don’t walk around here when it’s dark.”

Midori still confidant laughed it off. “Ha ha, very funny.”

Kathy and I looked at the hotels dirty brick façade and entrance doors covered in trash and grabbed each other’s hand. Midori pushed past us. “Everyone knows Seoul’s a dirty city. But I’m sure the inside will be quite luxurious.”

I wasn’t so certain knowing our budget. We walked through the door and were greeted by a lobby that looked like it hadn’t been redecorated since WWII. The filth factor at least was a bit less obvious. Midori picked up our key and we rode the elevator to the 10th floor in silence. The air was filled with the pungent smell of stale cigarettes mixed with kimchi.   

Midori opened the door to our room with a flourish. “Look, it has an amazing view.”

If you could call a view of the city partially blocked by the building next-door amazing. Kathy ever the mediator said, “The sunset is pretty.”

Then Midori flicked on the main light to the room and the sound of scratching on hardwood filled the air.

I looked at Kathy. “What the hell is that?”

Midori tried hide the goose bumps on her arms. “Everything looks fine. The sound must be coming from next door.” She walked up to the sliding paper doors and said, “Look. Just like I promised.”

She pushed the doors aside to reveal a traditional Japanese style room. On the floor lay the all too familiar three futons. I threw my suitcase in the corner. “Fantastic.”

Kathy walked up next to me and whispered. “Look, I’m as thrilled as you are. But what can we do?”

Midori put her suitcase by the futon next to the window. “I don’t know about you guys, but I could use a nap before we head out for dinner.”

I hated to admit, but I was tired too.  If only I could flop into a fluffy western bed. “Fine.”

We crashed on our futons and slept for over an hour. When I woke to the sound of scurrying little feet the room was dark. “What the hell?”

Kathy shot up straight. “Something is in my mouth!”

Even Midori, who could sleep through anything, woke up. “My arms itch.”

I got up and walked toward the light and felt something crunch under my foot. “Yuck. What the heck is going on?”

Turning on the light, I was faced by hundreds of cockroaches scurrying for a place to hide.

Kathy and Midori jumped up and down on their futons screaming. “Gross!”   

I looked at Midori and tried not to gloat.  “You sure picked a fantastic hotel. Did we have to pay extra for the roaches?”     

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule # 10: You Can’t Control the Weather, So Sing in the Rain!

Even in the rain, the beautiful gold statues of the Pont Alexandre III Bridge can be seen for blocks

I always check the weather forecast before I head out on a trip. In fact I start looking more than a week ahead of time thanks to the 10 day forecast feature on the Weather Channel. The day before leaving, I become so obsessed I often check more than twice!  Which is a big mistake when I know even a slight drizzle can drain my enthusiasm for a trip.

Case in point my trip to Paris. I’d always dreamed of visiting Paris—practically since I was in kindergarten. So when I finally booked a flight last year, I couldn’t wait to see the city of lights. But my excitement began to wane when the forecast was cold and wet. I only had three days in Paris before heading off to the South of France and rain had been forecast for the entire trip!

“Merde!” I screamed at the computer monitor.

How could fate be so cruel? I’d waited all this time to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world only to pick a week when the weather was going to be awful? How could I walk the streets of Paris and take my customary thousands of pictures of all the city’s beauty and landmarks while battling the elements? Would the Eiffel Tower look as impressive soaking wet? I had my doubts.   

My friend Tracy, who had been to Paris several times, including in the rain, quickly brushed off all my hand wringing. “Get real! How can you be so upset over something you can’t control?”

Exactly. But I couldn’t let go. “I’ve waited so long to see Paris, why can’t the weather be fantastic?”

She put her hand on my shoulder. “Because Mother Nature can be a real dream crusher.”

No kidding! I’ll never forget the time I set off for Okinawa and the weather was beyond beautiful. My whole stay was perfect.  But as I rode the ferry back to the island of Kyushu, a pleasant voice on the intercom announced that we were heading straight for a category 4 Typhon.

So much for the weather—we almost capsized!     

I’m happy to report that after all my days of cursing Mother Nature—she came through for me in Paris. I had an amazing sun soaked two and half days and managed to see everything on my wish list.

Eiffel Tower, check.
The Louvre, check.
The Quai Brany, check
Notre Dame, check
Museum d' Orsay, check
Walk the Champs-Elysees, check
The Place de la Concorde and the amazing fountain made famous by the cell phone toss in the Devil Wears Prada, check
Stroll the Jardin des Tuileries and Jardin du Luxembourg, check
Eat my way down the Rue St. Germain, check 

I logged over 10 miles a day on my trusty pedometer!

On the last part of the third day, the rain finally arrived. Mostly a drizzle, it hardly put a damper on my last action packed day in the city of lights. In fact, I found that the rain seemed to amplify all the lights in the city by the reflections on the water soaked streets and buildings. Paris in the rain took on an even more romantic quality.  The place positively glowed!   

Moral of the story: Remember Fish Out of Water Rule # 10: You Can’t Control the Weather, So Sing in the Rain! Note to self: You’re in Paris, who cares if its soaking wet!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #9: Always Bring A Backup. Sometimes You Need More Than One!

One thing I’ve learned from traveling curve balls go with the territory. You need to think fast and be flexible. So over the years I’ve played it safe. In case my luggage gets lost or I can’t find a must-have item in the country I’m visiting, I bring a backup anything from my favorite toothpaste to extra memory for my camera. But on one trip I learned that a back up camera should move to the top of the list. (And I'm not talking about an iPhone. Well, until they can invent one that takes panoramic shots and has multiple lenses.)

Case in point my trip to the Philippines. I spent an amazing 9 days traveling all over the colorful country. I visited all the major natural wonders the islands have to offer. The Lake Taal Volcano Islands, Katibawasan Falls, the Banaue Rice Terraces, the Chocolate Hills and the fascinating hanging coffins of Sagada. After a whirl wind trip, my head spun from all the fabulous sites I’d seen. I couldn’t wait to show my family back home all the photos I’d taken.

Unfortunately Philippine Airlines had other plans. While flying over a particularly bumpy patch of the Pacific Ocean, the plane suddenly lurched forward and then flew straight up in the air. The pilot frantically tried to get control of the plane and we leveled out for a few minutes before the plane nose dived toward the ocean. The overhead bins flew open and the oxygen masks dropped down. Did my life flash in front of me? No. I was too busy watching my carry-on bag fly out of the overhead bin. All I could think of was please let my camera survive as I watched my bag crash against a seat and hit the floor.

Panicked, I threw off my seat belt, pushed the oxygen mask out of my face, and leapt to my feet in hot pursuit of my bag ignoring the fact that the plane continued to careen toward the ocean.

My seatmate Glen, grabbed onto my pants and yelled. “You’re crazy, sit down!”

I  reached over and snagged the carry-on rolling toward my feet. Hugging the bag in my lap, I fastened my seat belt. After a few more terrifying minutes the pilot managed to wrestle control of the plane.

 Taking a deep breath, I opened my bag. The hatch on my camera was missing and the memory card was broken in half.

“Oh my God,” I cried out to anyone who would listen.

The woman across the aisle from me said in a calm voice. “Everything is going to be fine!”

Glen reached over and held my hand. “It’s okay we’re safe now! We've made it!”

I looked down at the broken memory card and all the fabulous pictures that were lost forever and said, “Yeah, but my pictures didn’t.”

Once again Glen looked at me like I was crazy. “What’s more important? Your life or a bunch of stupid photos?”

I sighed. “Well, I’m glad I’m not dead but you should have seen the pictures I took of the Chocolate Hills. The lighting was perfect. The hills looked like giant flatted out Hersey kisses dotting the country side. Amazing.”

He gave me a smile. “You describe them so well. You can just tell people what you’ve seen.”

I stuffed down a laugh. “You haven’t met my family. They never believe what I tell them. My grandfather was the king of the whoppers. No, they need proof.”

Glen shook his head and reached into his bag. “Here,” he said handing me a postcard.

I looked at the card covered in a kaleidoscope of pictures of the top tourist attractions in the Philippines. “Thanks. But it doesn’t have a picture of the hanging coffins of Sagada.”

He gave me a sly grin. “No. But at least you’re not coming home in one.”

Moral of the story: Remember to follow Fish Out of Water rule #9: Always bring a backup. Sometimes one is not enough!     

Monday, July 25, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #8: Always Bring A Clothesline. You might just need it to rescue someone....yourself!

The Chateau Agel in Southern France 

Travel these days can be a major time suck as well as a hit to the wallet. With the extra charges for bags and the endless lines for security, now more than ever I travel light. I only bring enough clothes for half my stay, usually two to three weeks. This means at some point on my trip I’ll be doing some laundry. Knowing that not every place I stay will have a washing machine, I bring my own laundry detergent and come prepared to hand wash everything.

I’ve been using this method for several trips and didn’t run into a problem until my fall vacation to France. Usually I travel in late spring when the weather is warm enough for nature to be my clothes dryer.  But on my trip to France, somehow I forgot that this time of year weather would be rainy and cold and nature wasn’t going to be lending me much of a hand. So when my one week of clothes was so dirty my jeans could practically walk on their own, I knew I could no longer put off cleaning my clothes.

The wonderful 13th century chateau I stayed in actually had a laundry.  So what’s the problem you might ask? Well, after breaking a washing machine in Tokyo, having my clothes shrunk two sizes in the Philippines, and finding my favorite pants stolen out of a dryer in Italy, I wasn’t a big fan of communal laundry facilities. So instead of taking my clothes down to the laundry tucked into a corner of the chateau, I decided to wash my clothes by hand. After all, my bathroom sink was huge.

I did my first round of laundry, including three tops, four pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks and one lightweight sweater.  I realized the bathroom didn’t have a shower curtain rod, my emergency clothesline of choice. Without my usual standby, I proceeded to hang my clothes on every available fixture in the bathroom including a picture and the fireplace mantel. Yes, I was lucky enough to have a fireplace in the bathroom. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to get the fireplace to work but, it did come in handy as clothesline.  At least that’s what I thought.

After a whole day of dripping all over the floor and into the bathtub my clothes were drying about as fast as a wet snail. I still didn’t want to resort to the dryer so I wrung the clothes out one more time and proceeded to hang them all over the bathroom like Christmas ornaments. Right then one of my travel companions stopped by my room in desperate need of more toilet paper. Without thinking, I let Joan follow me into the bathroom.

She looked in horror at my clothes hanging everywhere. “What are you thinking? There are laundry facilities downstairs.”      

I hung my head as the water from my sweater hit the tile floor in steady drips. “I like to wash my clothes by hand.”

Joan rolled her eyes. “You’re crazy. The clothes are going to take forever to dry in this weather.  Plus there’s no heat in the Chateau.”

A fact I was well aware of. I had two comforters on my bed and still needed to wear silk underwear under my flannel pajamas in order to sleep. “Tell me about it.” I stared at my clothes draped everywhere like Dali clocks. “Look, I’ve had some really bad experiences with public laundries. Besides my clothes are shy.”
Thankfully she laughed. “I think I have something that might help.”

Darting back to her room, Joan returned with a multi-colored twisted cord. “Here,” she said as she handed it to me.  

At first I was a bit confused. “Is doing my own laundry an offence I don’t know about? Am I supposed to hang myself?”

She laughed so hard she slipped on the wet tile and ended up in the bathtub with my sweater draped over her shoulder.   

I threw her the cord like a life saver. “Here, grab on.” I was amazed at how handy it was as I pulled Joan out of the bathtub. “You must be psychic. How did you know I’d need a rope?”   

My wet sweater went flying across the room. “No you idiot. It’s a clothesline.”

Moral of the story: Remember to follow Fish Out of Water rule # 8: Always bring a clothesline. You might just need it to rescue someone…yourself.     


Monday, July 4, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #7 Part Two: Don't Leave Home Without Earplugs!

The view at sunset from the Tuscan Villa

I love off the beaten path travel. Especially when it brings me close to nature. But sometimes you can be a little too close. Case in point Italy.

When I visited the lovely countryside of Tuscany, I had the pleasure of staying in a villa so remote it was off a dirt road. When my group of companions and I first drove up to the gate to the villa we were greeted not by the owners, but by a pair of beautiful white cows. They ambled up to the fence and sniffed in our direction. I said to my friend, ”Do you think we smell like Americans?”    

My friend laughed. “I think they’re just curious. They know we’re not from around here. Our novelty will wear off.”

She was right. After two days the cows didn’t bother anyoneexcept me. Every time I walked by, they trotted over to the fence and stuck their noses through the slats. I took it as a compliment. They knew an animal lover when they saw one.

But cows weren’t the only native animals we had the pleasure of meeting. On the villa grounds there was a pretty little courtyard with a charming three-tiered fountain that several types of birds used as their bath. On the other side of the villa was a lovely stone patio and a few feet away, barely noticeable through the overgrowth of vines, was a grotto filled with tiny fish.

The grotto remained forgotten until one night we were sitting out on the patio drinking our wine. We heard a loud grunt coming from off in the distance. Then the one grunt was joined by a few others. In a matter of minutes a chorus of grunts and croaks grew so loud we could hardly hear ourselves. I shouted at my companions. “Where did all the bull frogs come from?”

The man sitting next to me laughed. “Must be mating season. The grotto is the perfect place for them to show off. Great acoustics.”

A woman said, “Oh aren’t they cute. They really are trying to impress the ladies.”

After the cacophony of croaks and grunts reached super sonic level people went inside. In my bedroom, not even the steady splash of the courtyard fountain near my window could mask the sounds of the frogs as they continued to perform until right before sunrise. Once again I kicked myself for forgetting to bring my earplugs.

When I went downstairs to meet my friends for breakfast, I could tell I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get any sleep. I looked into my friend’s bloodshot eyes, “What are we going to do? Those frogs are so damn loud.”

One of the men said, “Oh, they didn’t stop? I slept like a log.”

Men! Another guy who’s just like my husband and could sleep through anything. I ignored him. “What are we going to do? I don’t think I can take this. How long is mating season?”

“Too long,” my friend said. “We need to take action. Tonight we’ll start operation good night’s sleep.” 

That evening, after another day looking at fabulous 12th century villages, we set out for the grotto loaded down with pots and pans. The frogs were croaking up a storm until they heard us coming. Then all was quiet. My friend said, “Okay, now.”   

We banged pots until the grass swayed like ocean waves from the frogs jumping for they’re lives. That’s over, I thought as I settled into my bed ready for a great snooze. I’m not going to need a pair of earplugs after all.

Then all of a sudden I hear a loud croak much closer than from the grotto. Then another and another until the singing was so loud I could barely think. My friend came running into my room, “What the hell? They are even louder than before.”

I flung open my bedroom window and looked down into the small courtyard. I turned to my friend. “You and your brilliant ideas. Guess where the frogs found a new home?”

She looked down at the fountain covered in singing frogs and had the nerve to giggle. “Seems they like you as much as the cows.”    

Moral of the story: Be sure to follow Fish Out Of Water Rule#7 and pack a pair of earplugs. You never know when the native wildlife might hit mating season. 

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #7 Part One: Don't Leave Home Without Earplugs!

I always try to be prepared when packing for a trip. After all I was a good Girl Scout. But after quite a few years of traveling, I never thought to pack something that should have been indispensable — earplugs!  This is especially surprising when you consider I’m a light sleeper.  Sleep is virtually impossible for me when I travel because I’m so excited to discover new places. I never think to take earplugs. This changed after two memorable trips.

The first was my dream honeymoon to Tahiti.  In newlywed heaven I wasn’t particularly worried about packing much but several bikinis and a few tubes of suntan lotion.  I’d read up on the islands we were going to visit, Moorea, Bora Bora and Huahine, and practically drooled over the amazing photographs.  I looked forward to enjoying the incredible beaches, azure waters, and the beautiful tropical flowers and birds.

Our honeymoon turned out to be everything I’d ever dreamed of. On Moorea, we stayed in a wonderful over ocean bungalow. Nothing like jumping off your front porch and straight into the ocean. At night I loved dangling my feet in the water and letting the fish nibble at my toes. On Bora Bora, we luck out with a beachfront bungalow in a lovely bay. The turquoise water was our front yard for three wonderful days. Nothing like strolling out into the ocean and going for a swim in 80 degree water. We just had to keep an eye out for sharks who also liked to swim in the bay. Huahine, is actually two islands joined together by a sand bar and is quite remote. We could swim from our bungalow right out to several tiny private islands that lie in the bay. Just my husband, me and the palm trees. Sounds like complete paradise right? Not!

Every morning on the wonderful island of Huahine we were awoken at the crack of dawn by the islands natural alarm clock: ROOSTERS! Sleeping in for me was out. I yearned for a pair of much needed earplugs.

When my wonderful newlywed disposition quickly deteriorated my husband asked me, “Is the honeymoon over already?”

I looked at him as if he was from another planet. “What are you talking about?”

“Well, you’ve been a bit touchy lately.”

“Blame those darn roosters. They wake me up at sunrise every morning. You know how much I like to sleep late. Especially on vacation.”

He shrugged his well-tanned shoulders. “I think its kind of fun.”

“Fun? What’s fun about roosters holding a crowing competition outside my bedroom window at 6:00AM?”

He gave me one of his cute little boy smiles. “Just stuff some tissue in your ears and go back to sleep.”

This spoken by a guy who could sleep through earthquakes.  “If only it was that easy.” Grabbing a beach towel I said, “Come on, let’s go out and enjoy paradise.”

We had another amazing day of sun bathing and strolling along the white sand beach my mood had improved considerably. That night we dinned on a wonderful French meal and had chocolate mousse for dessert.  My heavenly honeymoon glow was returning. Then my husband presented me with a small box. “Here, something I think you’ll really like.”

Visions of a black Tahitian pearl ring I had admired popped into my head. I tore open the box and there sitting on a fluffy piece of cotton was something I had been dreaming about. A pair of bright pink earplugs.

I looked into my husband’s eyes and said, “I knew I married the right guy.”

Moral of the story, always follow Fish Out Of Water Rule #7, Don’t Leave Home Without Ear Plugs! Be sure to throw a pair of earplugs in your bag before you hop on the plane. Your travel companion will thank you.   

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #6: Don't Let Montezuma Spoil Your Travel Fun!

Mexico and my digestive system have always been enemies. This has been a big problem for me, as I love the country. So may exciting places to see and good things to eat. Living in California, Mexico is such a tempting destination. But the price was always high for my culinary adventures. When I decided to take my husband up on a trip to the Yucatan, I swore this time I was going to find away to truly enjoy the amazing cuisine he kept telling me about.

After a well-spent hour of searching for answers on Google, the usual precautions were posted. Frequently wash your hands, (now made much easier by hand sanitizer), drink bottled water, don’t eat vegetables washed in local water. You know the drill. Then I came across a post that would change my life. A doctor who loved to travel had a similar problem to mine. He liked sampling local cuisine until he tried that one thing that set his digestive track over the edge. I’m grateful for the last bout he had in Thailand, as it forced him to discover a cure. Somehow he figured out that if he took a chewable Pepto tablet before each meal he never got sick again. Eureka I thought. Yucatan here I come!

I diligently chewed a tablet before every meal as we ate our way through the Yucatan. From yummy tamales called brazo de reina, to the delicious enchilada-like papadzules, I ate with complete abandon. This cure may not work for everyone, and you definitely don’t want to exceed the recommended daily dose, but I have to say my digestive track was positively singing powered by the amazing pink tablet.

But the true test of the mighty Pepto pill came when we ventured to the giant pyramid of Uxmal. A veritable tour-de-force of engineering, Uxmal seems to shoot straight up to the Heavens. It makes hiking up Chichen Itza feel like a stroll in the park. The steps are so tiny you have to walk up sideways. Once at the top, the view of the surrounding grounds is breathtaking. Off in the distance you can see smaller pyramids still blanketed in vines of the jungle. The same vines that once swallowed up Uxmal.

After practically tight roping my way down the steep pyramid, I had worked up quite an appetite. My husband wanted to get back on the road and try a local place devoid of tourists. After more than a week of worry free eating, I gave him a thumbs up. When we pulled into a gravel lot next to a small house on the side of the road, my enthusiasm quickly dwindled. “Is this even a restaurant?”

He gave me a confident grin earned from a previous two-month exploration of the Yucatan. “This is what they call home cooking.”

He wasn’t kidding. We walked past a yard full of chickens and into the house turned restaurant. The décor was simple with dirt floors and a small grouping of battered wooden tables and chairs. Instinctively, I reached into my backpack and popped a Pepto. I looked at my husband, “What should we order?”

“Well, I think the main thing on the menu is chicken.”  

I gave him a look. “You mean our lunch is strolling around the front yard?”

He patted my hand. “Can’t get any fresher.”

We placed our orders for pollo pibil, a delicious native dish made with bitter orange and chicken wrapped in banana leaves. I watched as a woman headed straight from our table and out the front door. After a few loud squawks, she returned with two dead chickens. In a flash I watched her pluck the birds on a stool just outside the back door. And in fifteen minutes lunch was served!

After the delicious meal, I turned to my husband and said, “Fantastic choice. You weren’t kidding when you said fresh.” I proceeded to pull a small feather out of my teeth. “I have the proof!”

Moral of the story, always follow Fish Out Of Water Rule # 6, Don’t Let Montezuma Spoil Your Travel Fun! Try popping a Pepto before adventurous eating, your digestive track might thank you.   

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #5 Part Two: Be Wary of Locals Advice

I have a passion for architecture, especially buildings that are not the usual tourist hot spot.  When I was in Tuscany, I experienced a bad case of grand cathedral overload.  There are so many lovely churches in the wonderful medieval towns that my eyes couldn’t take in any more spectacular detail after the 30th church.  So I’m well aware of how locals can become complacent about the beautiful architecture they walk by everyday. So when I ask a local if they know of a fabulous historic building, sometimes their eye’s glaze over.

Case in point, my trip to the city of Narbone in the south of France. It’s a delightful place with the stunning midi canal running through the center of town. The city dates back to Roman times and even has the remnants of a Roman stone road in the main square. The buildings that line the square are from the medieval era including a large cathedral that peaks out from behind several imposing government buildings. 

I took an ancient architecture class in college so I love when I see elements I studied in class.  The cathedrals upper level is supported by a series of flying buttresses. Now, I’m used to seeing the impressive buttresses at ground level, like at Notre Dame, but this was the first time I had seen them so high up on a building. I thought the cathedral must be very special. Unfortunately, I had plans to see some of Narbone’s other wonderful attractions so the church wasn’t on my sight seeing list. Besides the grand churches of Paris had once again given me cathedral overload.

After going to the fabulous market and having a yummy lunch with a view of the canal, I told my friend I wanted to do a bit of shopping.  Who knew Narbone would be filled with so many incredible knock offs of the fashion I had seen in Paris but couldn‘t afford?  After we filled our bags full, we had a bit of time to kill before meeting up with our friends. The sight of the flying buttresses still haunted me. So I decided to ask a local if it was worth rushing over to see the cathedral since we had some time.  

I approached an older woman carrying almost as many bags as we had. In my broken French I said, “The church by the square. Is it beautiful?”

She looked at the shopping bags filled with clothes and souvenirs our American cover was blown. In a heavily accented English she said, “The cathedral is very old but simple. Not very nice.”

How could a place with such an elaborate buttress system be simple? “Really. It looks quite large and impressive from the square.”

She wrinkled her nose. “No. Not worth your time. Do more shopping!”

And with that pronouncement she marched off toward the market to do just that. I looked at my friend. “Something in my gut tells me we should go take a peak.”

She gave me a smile. “My empty wallet agrees with you.” 

We speed walked up the street to the cathedral. My jaw dropped the second I caught a glimpse of the impressive height of the façade.  “Wow, no wonder they need buttresses on the top. This church is ridiculously tall. My neck hurts trying to find the roof.”

The entrance to the cathedral was quite plain as the woman said, but when I walked through the impressive doors, the shear grandeur and volume of the space was overwhelming. One hundred and thirty feet of vaulted majesty accented by enormous stain glass windows. Although the cathedral didn’t have the cache' of it’s larger sisters like Norte Dame, standing in the nave gave me goosebumps.

I turned to my friend. “This place is simple? What the heck was that woman talking about? They must put something in the water.”    

Moral of the story, always follow Fish Out of Water Rule#5, Be Wary of Advice From Locals.  You might miss out on a spectacular architectural wonder. Besides your wallet will thank you.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule #5 Part One: Be Wary of Locals Advice

I’ve traveled around enough to not be shy about asking the locals for advice. Sometimes with my limited vocabulary, I may have to fill in the missing words with hand signs and the occasional sketch. But I’m pretty good at getting my message across. I enjoy finding spots that are a bit off the beaten path. Whether it’s a hidden church or temple, or a restaurant that features unusual cuisine, I’ve found some amazing places by asking the locals to divulge their favorite spots.

But here’s a word of caution. This strategy is not without risks. You may be led to places you’d rather not know existed and encouraged to eat things that probably should not enter your digestive system.  Most of the time I don’t regret following a locals advice, but here’s an example of a time I wished I’d been a bit more discriminating.

On a sticky summer night in Tokyo, I should have known better than to brag to a Japanese local that I was an adventurous eater. The Japanese eat more unusual things than raw fish. But when the cute guy with a big smile said in broken English, “I know place interesting food,” 

I nodded my head in anticipation. In hindsight, I probably should have been a bit more leery of the word “interesting”. 

Following the map the guy drew for me; I walked down the twists and turns of the streets in downtown Shibuya, until I came to a tiny hole-in-the-wall. The front of the restaurant, only the size of a storage shed, looked like it could hold barely twenty people. There was something charming about the brick clad facade with a large green door. Overhead hung a beat up wooden sign with a green grasshopper sitting proudly on a large leaf. The aroma of roasted meat tickled my nostrils as I opened the door. I sat down at a large bar similar to one you find at a sushi restaurant, and breathed deep. I was starving and the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen almost made me drool.

One of the chefs came over and asked me for my order. With my limited Japanese, I said, “Can I have the house special.” 

The man next to me raised his eyebrows, and said in broken English, “You like very much.”

I watched as my fellow diners enjoyed large plates of noodles with unusual shaped garnish that looked like it was moving.  Had the summer heat finally gotten to me? My diner companions seemed unfazed as they slurped up their noodles enjoying every bite.  The chef worked feverishly behind the counter arranging a group of small brown pod like objects on top of a mound of noodles. 

He presented my dinner with a big flourish and said, “Itadakimasu, dig in!”  

My mouth dropped open when I looked down at the “house special”.  The wonderful roasted aroma I had been salivating over all night was roasted beetles!     

 Moral of the story; be sure to follow Fish Out of Water Rule#5, Be Wary of Advice From Locals.  You may end up with a beetle in your mouth. Part two coming soon. : )  

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Fish Out Of Water Rule # 4 Don't Leave Home Without It!

A wonderful display of perfume in Paris 

There’s a general rule when traveling in Western Europe, you can find almost everything we have in America. So why bother to load yourself down with a bunch of crap? But I’d rather live by the old adage, “Better safe than sorry.” Especially if you are like me and have a host of allergies making life a bit more complicated.

Case in point, my recent trip to France. Although I’ve traveled quite a bit, this was my first trip to that part of the world. I didn’t really believe my friends when they told me I could buy what ever I need in France. The French are famous for their perfumes and fragrances are at the top of my allergy list. Walking into a Department store near the cosmetic counter or cruising down the detergent aisle in the grocery store, I have to hold my breath.

Whenever I travel abroad I always take fragrance free soap and lotions with me. Since I hate to loose valuable luggage space to a bunch of bottles, for my trip to France I decided to believe my friends and bring just a few travel size bottles and a small bar of soap. I needed the luggage space for cold weather clothes, as I would be staying through mid October.  

In Paris I had no problem finding fragrance free products although they certainly weren’t cheap but when I got to the south of France the pickings became non-existent. And wouldn’t you know it, my products began to run out. I hadn’t taken a bath or washed my hair in three days and thought my secret was safe.

Then my friend Joan pulled me aside. “Anne, is your shower broken?”

I looked at her puzzled. “No, why?”

Joan grabbed my arm and moved me away from our friends. “Because you kind of smell.” 

My face burned hot. How humiliating! 

I explained that I had allergies and had run out of my unscented soap. Joan assured me that the soap she had was virtually fragrance free. Not wanting another embarrassing confrontation, I gave the soap the sniff test. But as anyone with allergies can tell you, the sniff test isn’t always the best policy. In desperation I broke down and used the soap. I lathered up my right arm and waited for a reaction. Nothing. Left arm count to ten….you get the picture.  I finished and thought; yeah I’ve been saved from the stink!  My celebration didn’t last long. The next morning I was starving so I rushed to get breakfast. 

While stuffing my face with cereal when Joan asked, “Are you all right?”

I thought maybe she was commenting on my bed-head hairdo.  “Yeah, why?”

“Because your face is swollen and you have red streaks all over your neck. You look like you're ready for Halloween.” 

Moral of the story; trust your instincts and follow Fish Out of Water Rule #4, Don’t Leave Home Without It! Your complexion will thank you.