Cuba Part 2: Just Look Up

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

At some point in the past decade, people began walking with their heads down.

Why? What are people looking for?   Looking at?   Their feet?   The ground?   Avoiding gum?   No, they are looking at cell phones in their hands. With the invention of the smart phone, the art of personal interaction and communication started changing.

Wherever you travel these days there’s an internet connection. Or so I thought. We were told in advance that internet connections could be “spotty” in Cuba. Even though I travel with a smart phone and iPad, I found the prospect of limited access intriguing. I activated the auto reply on my business email, recorded a voice mail greeting informing clients I was out of the office, and off we went.

Pedicab in Havana

Pedicab in Havana

As digital protocol dictated, on arrival I checked my email on the iPad. In Cuba my smart phone was useless except as a clock or camera. The hotel wifi connection was slow the first day. On the second day – even slower. I could brush my teeth and shower by the time my email loaded. (Unlike home, our hotel shower was extremely luxurious resulting in my taking an abnormally long shower.) This lengthy shower enabled all my vital communications to download. After so much time and effort and so little reward (important emails vs. junk emails), I decided to turn off all electronics and experience being “digitally disconnected” for the remainder of the trip. I felt a sudden strange sense of freedom.

For me, cutting the digital cord was not as hard as you might think. Unlike many of my contemporaries, technology doesn’t play a large part in my life. Outside of work, I don’t Tweet, post on Facebook or check in on Foursquare. I do have a Facebook account, but only have a small number of friends – and they “friended” me. My wife says I’m antisocial.  She’s probably right, but I think it’s only a part time condition.

Poster at Hotel SaratogaBeing digitally free, I had more time to explore my surroundings. One day, while wandering around the Hotel Saratoga lobby, I noticed an interesting wall decoration. On it were signatures of people from all over the world who had stayed at the hotel. At the bottom were the words Brooklyn, NYC and a website address: Olivesveryvintage.com. Since I was born in Brooklyn and my son had recently moved there, it piqued my curiosity.

The photo and website address stayed in the back of my mind until I returned home. I found out that olivesveryvintage.com is the website of Olive and Olaf’s, a store in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn and an online shopping website for vintage fashions and home décor items. On a lark I clicked on the company’s email link and sent the photo and a short email detailing how I came to take it. Later that day I received an email from Jen McCulloch, the founder and owner of Olive and Olaf’s. She was amazed that someone would contact her regarding a poster she had signed 5 years earlier. I just might drop in to Olive and Olaf’s next time I’m in need of something vintage to wear. (It’s funny that after refraining from using technology, I needed it to connect with Jen.)

While traveling around Cuba I saw little evidence of people using smart phones or tablets. Because of poor or nonexistent internet connections, if you do see a smart phone it’s for voice conversations or texting. Even in people’s homes internet connections are rare due to the high cost, limited bandwidth and censorship of online content.

On one hand limited technology hinders progress in Cuba, but at the same time facilitates an atmosphere for people to people communication. People talk directly to one another – not via technology. They tend to live in the moment, their moment, not through someone else’s life on Facebook.

Wall Graffiti

Wall Graffiti

Walking through the streets of Havana, while looking up, I noticed interesting graffiti on the outside wall of a bar. The bar turned out to be La Bodeguita Del Medio, one,of  Ernest Hemingway’s many favorite watering holes.  The bar & restaurant was also a favorite of former Chilean President Salvador Allende and the poet Pablo Neruda. It lays claim to being the birthplace of the mojito.

Hemingway's Hangout

Hemingway’s Hangout

While in Cuba I consumed more alcohol (mojitos and cervezas) than I have in the last two years combined. I rationalized this consumption as a way of staying hydrated. And I did.

La Bodeguita Del Medio was packed and alive with conversation as I entered. No one was looking down at their hands. Drinks were being consumed, food shared and stories exchanged. Unfortunately I couldn’t understand one word, but I knew everyone was thoroughly engrossed in the moment.

People to People

People to People

In the evening many Cubans congregate along malecons with the hope of catching a breeze and meeting friends. Face-to-face conversation is the main entertainment … and perhaps receiving a free bottle of rum from a passing carload of crazy Americanos. One night, with Matt our tour guide from Austin and Cindy and Terry from Michigan, I cruised the malecon in Havana.

While speaking with a Cuban about the local social scene, a young woman came up to me and posed for pictures her friend was taking. She was about 20 years old, extremely attractive, and had a great smile. This led to a conversation with Matt translating, since he was the only one in our group fluent in Spanish. Through Matt I asked why she wanted pictures with me, secretly hoping I still had that certain “something” (which I’m not sure I ever had). Or was it that I reminded her of her father? It turns out she just wanted pictures with an American tourist. She gave us her phone number and told us to call if she could be of any help during our stay in Cuba. I’m still waiting for her to “friend” me.

As I get older, I have a growing desire to find the world of my early years. Where neighbors would go outside on a hot summer night and speak over the fence. Where children would see how many fireflies or bees they could catch in a jar.Dina Photo Web 2

To facilitate a true “people-to-people” experience on vacation, you might first want to attend a 3-day retreat at Digital Detox in Ukiah, CA., where the theme is “disconnect to reconnect”. After attending you could take a flight directly to Cuba and truly enjoy a “people-to-people” experience. All you need to do is just Look Up! If not you might miss something like this – click here!

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Relax…Breathe…

The highway digital sign crying “Silver Alert – Missing elderly man in gray Mercedes, License XXXX” signaled our entry into Florida. Having spent the last twenty years living in the suburbs of DC and Houston, we are accustomed to snipers, car-jacking , kidnapping and Amber alerts, murder and mayhem…missing children, but not missing seniors!

Loving the Beach!

Loving the Beach!

Whenever we relocate, we approach the adventure as if we were moving to a foreign country – new foods, new vocabulary, new customs. We followed the same process with this move to the Naples area.

We quickly adapted to the new foods: Tex Mex has been replaced by Italian and fresh seafood restaurants.

New vocabulary: “In Season” no longer means to wear white after Memorial Day, but refers to the time of year when tourists invade the Florida beaches.

New customs: Relax…breathe…relax…  Keeping up with the 80 MPH traffic on the Interstates around Houston has given me a heavy foot and an attitude. Traffic on Highway 41 (Tamiami Road) to Fort Myers is nearly as congested as it is on Beltway 8 in Houston, except that it moves at 1/3 the speed; instead of eighteen wheelers and super big pick-ups rocketing past us on the Interstate, a plodding phalanx of luxury cars block all three lanes. We are trying to learn to calm our ulcers and enjoy the pace.  After all, we are retired. We don’t HAVE to be anywhere! Relax..breathe…

All the News…

I am a print newspaper person. Yes, I have my Kindle for books, my tablet for research, my phone for email, and my computer for blog writing. But I love my paper and coffee in the morning, even though the news is 24 hours old and I’ve already read the highlights on Google.  Embarrassed though I am to confess it, my favorite part of the Daily News is the police reports!

The first one I read hooked me forever:  a motorized wheelchair had been found in downtown Naples; if not claimed in 90 days, the wheelchair would be turned over to the finder.

I pondered with another cup of coffee: did the chair take off on its own? did junior high kids joy-ride in a stolen wheel chair, and then abandon it? was the occupant of the chair suddenly raptured?  Did he appear in heaven wearing his clothes, but leaving his wheelchair behind?

After the murder and mayhem of Houston, the domestic “violence” reports here are lifted from the 50’s. A few of my favorites from the last weeks are:

  • The couple who were arrested because he scratched her neck and left a red mark after she struck him with a phone charger cord. This is violence?  Have they never heard of assault weapons?
  • A woman who attacked another with a hair dryer. That was the whole story in the paper. I want to know more! Was the dryer set at full power and on hot? Did the victim’s hair stand on end?
  • The adult who threw a soup can at the teen-age boy who had not started his chores. The boy had a bruised arm and “the soup can was taken into evidence.” With some fast thinking by the “perp,” this report could have been the gentler version of the Alfred Hitchcock episode where Mary killed her husband with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasted it and served it to the investigating officers. Why didn’t the guy have lunch before the police arrived?

And the crime stopper:

  • A man was arrested for operating a dental office out of a one-car garage. He picked up people at the local grocery store and drove them to his place of business. He quoted undercover agents $350 for a root canal, and was charged with practicing dental hygiene without a license! Where can I get a license for flossing? Target? CVS? Walgreens?

Barefoot

Lest you think I don’t like it here, let me extol the virtues: really nice people, amazing photo ops, great restaurants and beaches. Beaches and more beaches, and all within a few minutes’ drive! We often have to remind ourselves that that we don’t have to “go back” in a few days – we’re not on vacation. We actually LIVE here!

Now if we could only learn to relax…

It’s a Small World, but a Big Decision

My aunt once announced that Perk and I had to quit moving because she had run out of space for us in her address book. When I calculated the number of places we have lived over the course of our marriage, I realized that we averaged a move every three-four years – sometimes to a new city, sometimes to a new place in the old city. I started keeping an inventory of our worldly goods, so that we could divest ourselves of them more easily with each move. We’ve pared down considerably.

???????????????????????????????When we were moving from Minneapolis, I measured my bookshelves in the new DC condo and made tough choices; as an English teacher, I had collected books for decades. Our son carted boxes of cherished volumes to the used book store until the manager cried, “That’s enough! We can’t take any more!” My son sorrowfully choked, “But I don’t know what to do with all of these. My parents aren’t with me anymore.” Assuming that we had moved on to that great Barnes and Noble in the sky, the manager relented and took all 3,000 (yes, three THOUSAND!) books.

Where in the World?

This next relocation, however, is disconcerting because we have no parameters for our decision-making.  Being retired, we do not need to worry about the commute time to the office, the quality of the schools, or even the city we live in. We only need to think about where we want to go, and it’s a big world out there!

As a Type-A Virgo, I had to invent some boundaries for myself.  We began by thinking about what we wanted in a new location:

  • A destination place We are gregarious, accustomed to lots of house guests. Apparently our delightful presence is not enough of a draw, because NO ONE accepts our invitations to come to Houston.  As my friend Ann Flanagan said, “Once you’ve seen the zoo and the beer can house, what else is there to do?”

    Beer Can House

    Beer Can House

  • No snow We lived in Minneapolis, Chicago and sometimes snowy DC for most of our lives. I’ve learned how much more room you have in the trunk of your car when you don’t have to carry bags of sand, snow brushes and jumper cables. I rarely complain about the rain in Houston … I don’t have to shovel it!
  •  Clean beaches I love sitting in the sun and smelling the salt water, wading in the surf and feeling the sand slip from beneath my toes. I don’t want to know what could be slipping from beneath my toes on the shores of the Potomac or on the red tide beaches of Bolivar Peninsula!
  • Things to do We like street fairs and open air concerts, science museums, funky art galleries, baseball games and people-watching.  We like to be outside, dressed in casual clothes and munching goodies purchased from sidewalk vendors.

After we considered the above four bullets, we still had too many options – California, the Carolinas, a Caribbean Island?  We added criteria:

  • Affordable
  • Healthy lifestyles
  • Friends to show us around

We were making progress, but decided that we needed input from the most important people in our lives.

Gulf Coast Sunset

Gulf Coast Sunset

Yes, we consulted our grandchildren. Where did they want us to live? Where would they like to visit us? I loved that their first response was “Paris”, but it’s too expensive for many visitors, snow sometimes clogs the Champs Elysees, the Seine is not for wading.  Their next choice was inevitable …

…and so we’re off to Florida. It’s a Small World after all!

Not Pandora’s Box

Guide books report where to find those “little out of the way shops” and blogs tell you the latest “trendy” spots to get a bargain. But by the time the guide books are published and the blogs are posted, everyone has discovered the boutiques and the bargains are gone.  So what to do when you’re shopping in Paris, or Houston, or Shanghai? Get out of the malls and out of the shopping centers. Avoid Pandora’s Box!

The Treasure Hunt

I have a friend who collects decorative boxes. Although I don’t always find one for her, searching for a box has been the key to finding many other treasures. Wandering the streets of Paris, I looked in all kinds of shop windows for a box; next to an antique shop, I discovered fashion designer Anna Fjord. Her clothing is custom-made of beautiful fabrics and reasonably priced for a unique design in Paris.  I bought a dress … but no box.

A new restaurant opened on Rue Chappe, and its window was decorated with pillows, baskets and painted boxes.  Adjacent to the restaurant, I found a potter who displayed pitchers, cups and bowls in a functional setting with one bare light bulb.  Marie Caloz proclaims herself from the Jurassic Age; she has no television, no computer, no Website, although she did get a cell phone six months ago for emergencies. I bought a couple of pieces of pottery for gifts … but no box.

We saw a street-fair that certainly wasn’t a sidewalk sale! Vendors had Cristofle silver, Lancel handbags, Baccarat and Lalique glass. I was careful not to touch anything for fear of decimating the crystal AND my bank account! And there I found it, nestled among the silk foulards … the perfect box!  I bought a scarf AND the box!

It’s In the Bag

My friend Deb Evans is a handbag freak – she LOVES purses, bags and satchels. I knew that was what I wanted to buy for her in Paris, but I wanted it to be unique. Over the course of the two months, I saw several women carrying handbags that I admired.  Finally, I gathered my courage and asked for help from a woman walking in Montmartre.

“Votre sac est tres agreable. Pourriez-vous me dire ou vous l’avez achete?”  Your handbag is very nice. Would you mind telling me where you bought it? “Je voudrais acheter un sac simulaire pour une amie aux Etats-Unis.”  I would like to buy one for a friend in the US.

Not only did she tell me where she purchased the bag, she took me into the nearby store and introduced me to the owner! Of course I bought one!

When is a Bargain … a Bargain?

When you pay what you’re willing to pay! I used to enjoy bargaining for the lowest price in Sicily and Mexico, but I’ve become too lazy.

We try to buy one antique liqueur glass from each country when we travel – just one, special individual glass, not a set. Like searching for the box, we have a good time searching for the perfect glass. We were in Marche Aux Puces, once a flea market but now with an upscale antique area, and discovered a signed Baccarat glass. It was marked 80 Euro; I was willing to pay 40. Instead of starting at 20 Euro, and negotiating up while the vendor negotiated down, I decided to experiment with an alternative technique learned from a friend who took me to the gold Souk in Dubai.

I waited until no one else was in the shop, so the vendor and I could speak privately. I looked at several glasses, appearing to consider less expensive options, none of which I really wanted; I kept returning to the heaviest cut, and most expensive, piece, but my reluctant body language made it “obvious” that the less expensive ones were in my budget. Finally, I asked “Qu’est-ce que le plus bas prix que vous accepterez de celui-ci?” What is your lowest price?

He looked at me for a moment, then replied, “Quarante Euro” – 40 Euro. Just as we purchased the gold bracelet for half price in Dubai by looking at other options and asking for the lowest price, we paid what we wanted to pay for the glass in Paris.

Maybe I could have paid less, but maybe not. If nothing else, I bought less frustration for myself and more time to do additional shopping!

Three key takeaways for frustration-free shopping are:

  • Search for the Unusual and you may find something even more unique next door
  • Enlist the Help of Strangers and score a great find
  • Decide What You Will Pay and never discuss price in front of other clients. (The proprietor will feel obligated to stick to his price in case the other customers aren’t so savvy as you!)

And, as the gift-giving season approaches, have fun finding the unusual!

The Pickpockets Are Not the Problem

Signs to remind the unwary to “beware of pickpockets” are in every Paris metro station, restaurant and museum. Paris bloggers tell you the latest scams such as the dropped gold ring and woven bracelets. Thieves work alone, in pairs or in groups, and as two obvious tourists, Perk and I know that we are wonderful targets!

Sometimes the groups are outrageously overt. A half-dozen schoolgirls dressed in uniforms of dark skirts and white blouses hover at the entrance of a Montmartre metro station each day, miming a request to sign a petition to help the deaf and mute; I know that they are neither because early one morning on my way to the boulangerie, I saw them laughing and talking on their way to “work.” It’s a good ploy: when a sympathetic tourist takes the clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other from one young woman, another girl slips her hand into his pocket or bag.  All of us who use that metro regularly watch out for the more gullible visitors on their way to the Sacre Coeur. Perk and I used to feel quite smug that we were “local” enough to be able to warn other tourists.

Music in the Air, a Hand in Your Pocket

One day we stopped in the Metro passage between train platforms to listen to a group of musicians playing rousing folk songs and selling their CD’s; children skipped through the crowd, adults snapped photos. The music made you want to dance. I took several pictures, tossed a few euros into a basket, and we moved on.  When we reached the platform, a man approached Perk,

“I want to warn you that two Gypsy boys from the music group tried to open your bag and steal from you. Please be more careful.” Sure enough, when Perk looked at the shoulder bag which he had slung over his back, the zipper was partly open.  The “pickings” weren’t good; apparently the kids didn’t need maps or another umbrella. But we were not quite so smug thereafter and we now make sure that our bags are secured!

The Problem?  C’est Nous!

We made our way into the Louvre taking our membership cards from our wallets, stopping by the information desk to pick up some pamphlets about a new exhibit. Hands overflowing with cards, brochures, wallets and cameras, we moved to the side of the madding crowd to organize ourselves. At that point, I realized that my wallet was gone.

A museum employee shook her head mournfully when I asked where to find the Lost and Found. “I will take you there, but I am sure it is of no use.  You need to be more careful about pickpockets, Madame.”  I know, I know…  I have seen them on the streets and in the metro; I can read French signs…

The clerk at the Lost and Found eyed me carefully. She spoke English. “You lost your wallet?” I nodded and started a description. Interrupting me, she held out a pad of paper and said, “Write your name here.” It wasn’t a form to be filled out, but plain notepaper. I printed “Cynthia Perkins”.

She unlocked a drawer and pulled out my red wallet. She looked at me, at the picture on my driver’s license and then held out the wallet — credit cards, driver’s license and euros intact. She stated the obvious. “You are lucky, Madame, that an honest person saw you drop this. A pickpocket would not have returned it.”

***

A few nights later, we chose a sidewalk table for dinner at a nearby restaurant. We carefully put our bags under the table so that no super scooper thief on a skateboard could swing by and grab them. The staff was fun and gregarious; the locals were friendly. We enjoyed the duck, the recommended wine, dessert and coffee.  Like stuffed ducks ourselves, we waddled the half-mile back up the hill to our apartment. Three hours later, Perk decided to check his phone … that was in his bag…that was left under the table.

Midnight on Saturday night in Montmartre is the beginning of the fun, so we knew the restaurant would still be open. We sped back and our waiter greeted us joyously!

“It is here! It is here! You left your bag and I did not know how to find you! No one has opened it, I promise you!”  Telephone, binoculars, camera were all in place! Grateful, Perk tipped the waiter who thanked him and said, “Please, you must be more careful. Not all people are so honest.”

He is right, of course. Not all people in Paris nor in Houston, New York or London are so honest. It’s not the pickpockets of Paris who are the problem; it’s the people like us – the casual, careless, trusting tourists who get themselves into trouble!

Once Bitten…

Sauntering through the Tuilleries, we watched a group of young adults in their school sweatshirts, joking and laughing. They approached us with a clipboard, but the metro petitioners and the Gypsy songsters had made us more careful.  We ignored their requests for “help,” until one young woman explained in careful English,

“We are a group of engineering students from the Ecole Centrale, and we have a series of challenges that we have to do today.” She pointed to a checklist on the clipboard.

“One thing that we have to do is to make a video of some old people saying that our university is the best in all of France.” Seeing our grins, another student intervened, “No, no, she didn’t mean ‘old’ like senile. She meant ‘old’ like ‘mature’ – we can’t ask other students.”  We looked at each other, shrugged and agreed.

Perk donned a Centrale sweatshirt , we made the quick video, then handed over our cameras for them to take a group picture …  no one took my Nikon and ran, no one slipped a hand into my shoulder bag. Sometimes you just have to take a chance!

Bourgeois, but Still “Adorable”

“You ride the Metro?!”  Parisian friends had been aghast that we would be so common, but then fearing they had offended us quickly modified their stance. “Well, I guess it works very well for tourists and students to get around Paris.” It also works very well for those of us who have decided to live the life of a Montmartre local for two months.

Anvers Metro

Friends also advised us that if we were determined to live local, we should buy a month’s metro pass which allowed unlimited rides. Key to its purchase was an “official” photo taken in one of the kiosks at a train station; the photo instructions were very clear: we were forbidden to smile, wear glasses, have any hair over our faces and we MUST look straight at the camera. The result was a true mug shot (missing the ID numbers) and worthy of a “most wanted” poster hanging in US Post Offices of yore. Perk looked particularly degenerate in his picture (I realized that I rarely see him without a smile!)

Worth 10,000 Words

With photos in hand we stood in line behind 30 or so others at the ticket/information booth at Gare du Nord .Only one attendant was on duty; we marveled aloud at his patience as he sold train tickets to London, answered questions about Metro connections, explained the value of Euros, sympathized with a couple who had missed their train to Amsterdam.  The blonde university student behind us in the queue listened to Perk and me chatter, and then asked in broken English why we had the photos. We explained about the month’s pass.

As the queue wound slowly forward, Perk worked with her to figure out which would be the most economical package for her three-week stay in Paris. (You know how he LOVES numbers!)  She decided on the month’s pass, but needed to get her picture taken. At least thirty more people had joined the queue behind us. She pondered. Were the savings worth losing her place in line?

“You get your picture taken, and we’ll save your spot,” we volunteered. The students behind her agreed to the plan and she loped toward the nearby kiosk.

Inspector Clouseau

Soon she was engaged in an argument with a uniformed agent. He kept shaking his head forcefully, “No, No, NO!” She kept arguing, gesturing toward Perk and me.  “Yes, Yes, YES!” The uniform eyed us suspiciously as she kept talking. What was she telling him? Why did he keep looking at us? Did he think we were smugglers, terrorists?  Had he seen Perk’s picture?

Perk’s Paris Metro Pass

The ticket line moved forward as they argued. Only two groups were ahead of us. Finally he shrugged, and she dodged into the photo booth; the uniform continued to watch us closely.

Within minutes and pictures in hand, she jumped into line behind us. The agent grimaced and moved away.

“Thank you,” she gasped.  “The kiosk attendant wanted to work on the machine. He said he would take 30 minutes. I said, ‘No, I must have my picture taken NOW.’ He argued.

“I said, ‘My parents are waiting in line for me. See, they are over there. I must hurry.’ He still didn’t believe me. ‘They will be angry if they have to get out of line after waiting so long. If you don’t believe they are my parents, go ask them!’”

“I know it was not nice of me to say such a lie. But I knew you would help me out. You are so gentille.”

“Adorable” in the US. “Gentille” in France. Either will do.

Leave the Kitchen Sink

Hong Kong Shopping

I am going to Paris for two months with only one suitcase (thanks to the washing machine in the apartment we’ve rented). When my in-laws visited us, they drove a station wagon from Memphis to Minneapolis because my mother-in-law Mary brought everything in her closet!

My father-in-law’s belongings were relegated to a valise and his golf bag. A rod across the backseat held a rainbow of Mary’s silk and linen; the wagon’s rear storage contained a butterscotch soft-sided suitcase ballooning with undergarments and cosmetics, and a 3x3x3 foot box filled with women’s shoes – golf shoes, walking shoes, sandals, pumps and boots. She brought everything “because you never know what you’ll need.”

Although I adopted Mary’s philosophy enthusiastically, we scaled it down a bit and usually traveled with two suitcases for me, two for each of the children, two for Perk – plus assorted carry-on pieces – a tour group’s worth of baggage for four people. Of course we brought most of the clothes home unworn, but we always had everything we needed!

Pay more; bring it home…

And then I ran into an uncooperative airline agent. After a business trip to Malaysia and Hong Kong (and after too many non-business trips into the local markets) I was heading home with suitcases strapped shut.  Airline baggage restrictions had changed, but I hadn’t changed my habits.

“Of course, you can pay a little extra for your overweight baggage and not have to worry about it.” The agent was excessively cheerful.  “Or you can take the heavy things out of your suitcases and dispose of them in that bin over there.” Suddenly my pewter vases, picture frames and tableware, bargain hand-stitched shoes and fake Rolex watches were a lot more expensive!  I plunked $300 more on my Visa card and muttered, “Well, at least I’ll get mileage points …”

From that day forward, I weighed my luggage wih a handheld scale that lets me know if I’m going to run into any overwieight luggage problems. AND I vowed to have plenty of room in my suitcase for new items by taking less to begin with!

Take less; bring more home!

I created a travel planner that has made my vagabond life much easier! I enter the activities that I think I might be going to do each day; I choose the clothes and shoes that I might wear, and add them in the grid. Then I consider what I could possibly wear twice, and cut my list in half; I transfer the clothes into the bottom half of the planner for packing purposes… and voila! I can usually cut another third off the list when I see that I planned to take three black sweaters when I only need one (or maybe two).  I know that I have done a great job of planning when I return home and drop my suitcase by the washing machine because everything in the bag needs laundering!

The best part is that if I don’t have what I need, I “have” to go shopping. And whether I need those hand-stitched shoes and pewter vases or not, I now have plenty of room for them in my suitcase!

Save  time, save space, save money! Download the free and editable Cyndee Perkins basic travel planner from Google docs.

Count to Ten

Our first trip abroad was funded by your tax dollars – and we are grateful!

Mt. Etna: with permission from Jackie Croft

Shortly after we were married, my husband Perk was assigned a three-year stint of shore duty at Sigonella, the US Naval Air Facility at the foot of Mount Etna near Catania, Sicily.This sojourn established how we would operate the rest of our lives – Perk plans and organizes, I live in the moment.

In preparation, Perk encouraged me to learn Italian; he suggested that we study together using books, tapes and recordings. I was a French major in college and  tired of an organized study of language. I liked to talk, to communicate. I figured that I could simply add an “a” to my French vocabulary, change the accent, gesture broadly, and I would have a reasonable chance of being understood.

Not being foolish, I learned a few key phrases that I knew would be vital. Perk studied – and as a navy disbursing officer, he focused on numbers, learning the currency and counting – and expected me to do the same. He worried about my lack of knowledge. How would I know how to count my change?

Dov’e la gabinetta?

After a fraught-filled trip to New York City (a blog adventure in itself!), we flew to Rome and transferred to the domestic airport. We were hot, tired and apprehensive when we finally settled at the gate. I left Perk with the bags and books, found a kiosk and directed one of my key phrases to the attendant, “Dov’e la gabinetta? Where is the ladies room?” (I had also learned directions – left, right and straight ahead so that I could actually find it!) My needs attended to, I returned to the gate.

Expecting a helpful reply, Perk asked, “Where is the bathroom?”

I retorted, “Too bad you don’t know how to ask. I guess you’ll have to cross your legs and count to ten!”

Cyndee’s Key Phrases to Learn

In addition to the phrase discussed above, memorize some language basics before traveling to a foreign shore:

  • Please and Thank You
  • Excuse me
  • Hello and Goodbye
  • Good morning, afternoon, evening
  • I am so sorry that I do not speak your language. Do you speak English?

And carry a small Berlitz language book so that you have polite phrases at your fingertips. After a few days abroad, the paperback will fall open to the oft-used page that says:

Can you spare a moment while I look up my question in this book?