Thursday, February 24, 2011

Fish Out Of Water Rule # 3 Learn the Language Basics Before You Leave Home!

The view from a side street in beautiful Assisi 

How many of you get all fired up to learn a language before you head off to visit a new country? I’m raising my hand. : ) How many actually do it? You’re not alone. 
Two months before I was going to leave on a four week trip to Tuscany, I checked out several Italian language books from the library. Being a good Girl Scout, I wanted to have at least a few basic phrases memorized before I left. The books sat in my office gathering dust until I looked at the calendar and realized I was leaving in five days! I crammed like I was studying for a college final. Then life took over and the books once again sat gathering dust on my desk. 

Once on the plane with my Italian cheat sheet, I realized I had only managed to memorize two phrases. How much is that? And, Where is the toilet? Better than nothing, and certainly useful, but once in Italy I realized I should have hit the books with a little more gusto. Eight words weren't going to get me very far. 

My trip to the beautiful medieval town of Assisi is a prefect example. The town is  full of impressive cathedrals and quaint cobblestone roads. The layout however, is very confusing. The labyrinth of streets all seem to be heading farther and farther away from civilization and up the steep hillside. Once I l left the popular churches behind, the chances of finding a bathroom diminished until large bushes were looking very attractive. 

Crossing my legs and wishing my jeans were a size larger, I staggered over to a group of older women and said, "Where is the toilet?"

They proceeded to wave their arms and point down one street and toward another and then they smiled and said, “Ciao!” 

I stomped my feet in frustration. Why hadn’t I learned the basics? Turn right, turn left, go down the hill three blocks, all would have come in very handy. Instead, I wandered around the towns back streets until I finally found a café. I practically knocked a woman over to get to the toilet. The relief was short. When I came out of the bathroom I faced a very unhappy husband who’s words needed no translation. He called me every name in the book.

Moral of the story, do yourself a favor and always follow Fish Out of Water Rule #3, Learn the Language Basics Before You Leave Home. Your bladder will thank you.  


Monday, February 7, 2011

Fish Out of Water Rule # 2 If You're Lost Admit It!

The Thunder Gate of Sensoji Temple

My unfailing sense of direction always added another dimension to my love of travel. I could count on one hand the number of times I’d managed to get lost. That was before I landed in Tokyo. Talk about a test of my navigational skills. The city was a labyrinth of alleys and side streets, and guess what? The streets didn't have names! The address numbers were really block numbers. Confused? Welcome to Japan. 

The famous Sensoji Temple was at the top of my Tokyo must-see list. Sun poured through my hotel window and I knew I’d picked the perfect day to visit the famous site located in Asakusa. I asked my Japanese friend, Keiko, to draw me a map to follow once I got off the subway station. I thought I had nothing to worry about. Keiko was a native so how could I possibly get lost?

Easy. I got off at the station, turned left, and ran into a market where endless stalls of merchandise bombarded me. Beautiful textiles blew in the wind like flags. Then a row of stalls full of amazing handbags caught my eye. I was so dazzled by all the styles that I didn’t realize I had wandered way off course. After purchasing a beautiful embroidered wallet and matching coin purse, I finally came up for air. I reached into my pocket for Keiko’s map. Empty! “Crap,”  I said to a lady in a blue floral dress. She smiled and waved good-bye as I walked back toward the street. Sweat dripped down my face as I struggled to remember the landmarks Keiko had drawn on her map. Was it turn left at the bookstore?  

I headed down the main boulevard with complete faith that my incredible sense of direction would somehow kick in. I’d turn the corner and see the famous Thunder Gate of Sensoji Temple. After wandering down several alleys I could no longer deny I was lost. I stuffed down my pride and made my first attempt to seek help. A nice woman with a colorful shopping bag looked like a good candidate. “Excuse me, do you speak English?” She shook her head and quickly walked away.

Several more housewives walked by but I continued to strike out. Then I saw two teenage girls in their school uniforms. They must have studied English. “Hello, do you speak English?”

One of the girls nodded her head. “Are you lost?”

“Yes, I’m trying to find the Thunder Gate.”

The girl and her friend were all smiles as they walked me to a main street that led directly to the temple. Now that they’d pointed the way, I found my destination in no time. I looked at my watch. It was already 3:30. How could I have been shopping for two hours? Knowing I had to meet Keiko for dinner at 5:00 way on the other side of town, I snapped a few pictures and waved good-bye to the Thunder Gate.

Safely back in Shibuya, I met Keiko for dinner with just five minutes to spare. I  tried to hide the evidence that I did anything more than visit the temple.   

I settled in and ordered octopus for dinner while Keiko suspiciously eyed my purse with the plastic bag sticking out. “So what did you think of the temple?” 

“An amazing experience, so spiritual.”

Keiko gave me a knowing grin. “Yes, I can tell. Your face is glowing. What did you see that made such an impression on you?”

“The Thunder Gate was amazing. I loved how the enormous paper lanterns swung back and forth in the breeze. But I especially liked the red leather purse with the chrome buckles.” Oops.

Moral of the story: when you are traveling abroad, don’t be afraid to admit when you’re lost. You won't end up with octopus on your face like I did.