NORTH TO ALASKA: Two if by Sea

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART TWO: Two if by Sea

Disclaimer: Neither Dina nor I have ever been on a cruise (not counting the Staten Island Ferry) – and never harbored any desire to do so.

At the Whittier dock we stood in line with hundreds of other people readying to board the Coral Princess. My violently shaking right hand held my boarding pass. Canadian Customs officials eyed me suspiciously as I approached. You could read their mind – “Is it contagious?” “Should he be quarantined?” Much to my surprise the official in charge asked, “Have you ever been on a cruise before?” I answered “No” and his body language eased. Just another cruise newbie.

The Coral Princess can accommodate 1,974 passengers, has 14 decks, 1398 staterooms/suites, 9 restaurants, 4 performance spaces, numerous bars, a casino, outdoor pool, sports deck, hot tubs, an outdoor movie theatre and is 964 ft. long. It’s an ocean going hotel. As long as you have a Coral Princess ID card the world, or in this case the Coral Princess, is your oyster.Coral Princess Card

Most cruise ships stop at different ports during the day so passengers can go on day excursions and cruise to the next port at night. Excursions are a huge money-maker for cruise lines. The premise is once you have the cow, or in this case passengers, milk the heck out of them. As soon as you sign up for a cruise, information regarding various available excursions floods your in-box and doesn’t stop – whale watching, scenic train rides, glacier landings, high-speed power boat river rides, nature adventures, dog sledding, salmon fishing, visits to totem pole parks…

SkagwayOur ports of call were Skagway, Juneau, Ketchikan with a final destination of Vancouver. The main industry in the first three (discounting Vancouver) is tourism. All towns were no more than a five minute walk from our docked ship, and each had its overwhelming number of discount jewelry, t-shirt, Harley Davidson and tchotchke shops. So much so that I felt that the real towns were hiding a few miles away and we were exploring sets built for the tourists.

Glacier BayOn our way to Skagway we spent an amazing afternoon cruising Glacier Bay National Park, which is on Alaska’s Inside Passage and covers some 3.3 million acres. Glaciers are constantly moving masses of ice under tremendous amounts of pressure. As tidewater glaciers reach the water, large pieces break off, or calve, and form icebergs. The sound of these massive chunks of ice plummeting into the water around us was thunderous and eerie.

Our first port of call was Skagway, a town founded in 1897 at the head of the Taiya Inlet – the northern most point of the Inside Passage. After having our fill of tourist shops we boarded the White Pass & Yukon Route Railway for the 40-mile White Pass Summit Excursion. White Pass TrainThe breath taking ride in vintage passenger coaches took us along wild flower festooned valleys, mile high waterfalls, mammoth glaciers, snow peaked mountains, and part of the original Klondike Trail, a narrow trail where countless lives were lost in the search for gold.

Our next port of call was Juneau, founded in 1890 and the capital of Alaska. It has the distinction of being the only U.S. state capital with no road access. Could its founding fathers have needed their “alone time”? If you want to get to Juneau you either fly or sail in. (Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita than any other U.S. state)

By this point in the trip, with passengers having gone on numerous excursions, a game of one-upmanship commenced. During communal meals claims like “I saw 2 bear”, or “Well, I saw 7 moose”, and “Big deal – I saw 6 bald eagles” were common. I found myself being swept up in the moment. Up until that point Dina and I had only seen 3 moose and some spawning salmon but out of my mouth came “Well, we’ve seen 4 black bears, 6 whales, 9 moose, 8 bald eagles and 3 squirrels”. Ooops. What does a kid from Brooklyn know about animals in the Northern wild? While in Juneau, however, Dina and I went on a whale watch and spotted numerous humpback whales breaching and sea lions sunning themselves along deserted beaches. We were ready to play the game again! Emergency Sign

Food is served 24-hours a day on a cruise ship and you’re never farther than 3-minutes from a meal. Passengers have their choice of Anytime, Traditional, or Buffet style dining. For an additional charge you can have dinner at one of the ship’s five Specialty Restaurants (remember the cow theory). If that were not enough, you can also graze at The Grill & Bar, Ice Cream Bar, Princess Pizzeria, and International Pastry & Coffee Bar.

At home, except for dinner, our meals are simple and quick. I boarded the ship determined to hold to the same regimen. Keep in mind that one of the big activities on a cruise ship is eating – and most passengers whole-heartedly embrace the activity. Suffice to say that I left the ship weighing an additional 5 lbs.

SelfieWe chose Anytime dining for meals. Now we had the option of eating by ourselves or at a communal table. The first night we chose to dine alone. Were we embracing the Alaskan concept of “alone time”? Or was it that I like people only when I’m in the mood? During dinner we struck up a conversation with a couple at the next table. Steve and Barbara from Arizona were in their mid 80’s and had gotten married in the last year. We had a pleasant conversation which led us to choose communal dining from that point on.

Over the next 6 days we ate with roughly 144 interesting people and heard some fascinating stories. We met a husband and wife from Burbank, CA who collect and restore 1956 Cadillacs, a couple from Australia who take 3-month vacations several times a year, and a woman from South Africa who ended up becoming sick on vacation in Russia and convalescing in a hospital there. (Here’s a shout-out to Tom and Paula from Delaware and Jack and Judy from Colorado. It was great meeting you!) I truly enjoyed taking my meals and talking with many of the 144 people – except for one right wing wing-nut from Ohio. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve worked alone at home for the past 21 years and needed some time around people.

Ketchikan, the least touristy town of the three, was our next port. By that time we had our fill of excursions so we just meandered around. The highlight of the day was visiting Burger Queen on Water Street – an excellent burger joint with killer malteds. It was the best malted I’ve had since living in the East Village. I suggest the pistachio – even with a hamburger. Some women like to buy jewelry on vacation. What was my wife’s treasured purchase? A 3” tall pewter moose purchased in Ketchikan that now sits proudly on our living room mantel.Moose

Vancouver was the final destination. By that time we both needed our “alone time” so we stayed for 3 days and shunned people. Did I have a good vacation? I had a great vacation! Did I enjoy the cruise? Most definitely! Would I do another cruise? Probably not, but I did confront my fears and the nightmares have finally stopped!

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NORTH to ALASKA: One if by Land

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

PART ONE: One if by Land

Eventually we all have to confront our fears. My time came this summer. Young DavidEver since I was young I’ve had a reoccurring nightmare of being trapped at sea on a mid-size cruise ship in a cold climate. While on this ship I’m forced by tribal customs to eat sizeable meals every 4 hours and make pleasant conversation with large numbers of people from all over the world. (But more about my nightmare later.)

This year was my wife’s turn to pick our summer vacation destination and Dina chose Alaska. I believe she selected it in retaliation for my choosing Cuba last summer. Dina is not a fan of hot weather, humidity or nail polish, and I’m not a fan of cold weather, gated communities or cruise ships. The dagger to my heart was that, in addition to the cold of Alaska, part of the trip would be spent on a cruise ship.Coral Princess

The first thing I did was research weather in Alaska in August. Not too bad – a high of low 60’s to 70˚F. What did concern me was descriptions like “weather highly unpredictable”, “dress in layers” and “Alaska gets rainier as the summer progresses”. We set off on July 29th with our first stop being Anchorage. The weather gods must have been listening to my prayers, because when we landed it was 80˚F and sunny. And I do mean sunny because at that time of year Anchorage experiences 20 hours of sunlight per day. Lucky for us our hotel room had blackout curtains.

What’s the first thing to do after landing in Anchorage? Play “Anchorage” by Michelle Shocked – a personal favorite of mine. What’s the second thing? Find a place to eat some great seafood. For us it was Simon’s and Seafort’s Saloon & Grill. After consuming a dozen local oysters, wild Alaska salmon Carpaccio, crab cakes, and several glasses of sauvignon blanc while watching the sun go down over the bay, we were ready to start our Alaskan adventure.

Mt. McKinley RangeOur first stop was the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, where Mt. McKinley (proper name is Mt. Denali – meaning “The High One”) could be seen in the distance. Standing at 20,237 feet tall it’s the highest mountain peak in North America and only fully visible 33% of the time. We took a short bus ride to Talkeetna, a small village at the base of the mountain, for a glacier landing with K2Aviation. Put this awesome adventure on your bucket list!

Jeff BabcockJeff Babcock, a retired 28 year veteran pilot of the Alaskan State Troopers was our pilot and enjoys his job. As soon as the de Havilland Otter took off, Jeff’s shoulders relaxed and he cracked jokes through our headsets. After flying over moose grazing below, we were within a mile of one of the most amazing sights in the world. To accentuate the moment Jeff pressed play on his iPod mini and we were instantly grooving to Johnny Horton singing “North to Alaska” followed by John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”. Yes, I know where the second song takes place, but it still worked.

Glacier LandingWe landed at an elevation of 5600 feet on the Ruth Glacier. Alaska is aptly nicknamed “The Last Wilderness”. The scene was one of austere beauty – vast, quiet, pristine and uninhabited. Dina and I were as silent as the landscape, awed and aware that we were in a place that only a small percentage of the world population will ever see.

The following day we panned for gold with Rich Humphrey, the new owner of Denali Gold Tours in Trappers Creek, Alaska. Rich was born in Alaska and has spent his entire life there except for a hitch in the U.S. Marine Corps. Since Dina and I were the only people on the tour that day, Rich had time to talk about Alaskans. The best way to sum them up is “friendly people who need their alone time”. Many live off the grid with no running water, electricity and little contact with neighbors – and prefer it that way.

Even though Dina and I have faced numerous precarious situations while living in NYC, we were nervous driving 20 miles down gravel roads into the back country with a man carrying two hand guns. Rich assured us that the guns were only a precaution in case we encountered bears. His explanation shifted our worry from him and his two guns to possible bear confrontations.Gold Panning

We were lucky since no bears were sighted, but we did see moose and spawning salmon. Dina proved to be a master gold panner in the mountain-fed freezing river as she found several flecks of gold. The best I could find was some flour gold – so small it wasn’t worth saving. Our back breaking labor was rewarded with a gourmet lunch of Reindeer Dogs and cold drinks at the local 7-Eleven equivalent and a visit to the Trapper Creek Museum. (Best of luck with the new business, Rich!)

Our next stop was a 2-hour drive to Denali, Alaska. There we took a half day tour of the six million acre Denali National Park and Preserve, filled with snow capped mountains and virgin forests. Our visit included an exhibition of overzealous 80-100 lb. dogs pulling a sled. The excited dogs almost pulled their trainers out of their boots as they went from the kennels to the sled. The trainers had to restrain the dogs’ enthusiasm by grasping their collars and lifting their front paws off the ground. No matter what the Coalition to Ban Horse-Drawn Carriages says about cruelty to horses, these dogs love pulling a sled.Lake WasillaDog Sled Exhibition

The next day we left on the McKinley Explorer glass-domed train for a relaxing six-hour train ride from Denali to Whittier, Alaska. The ride took us through endless acres of forests, over rivers and gorges, past Sarah Palin’s summer home on Lake Lucille in Wasilla, Alaska and down the coast along the Prince William Sound to Whittier. The train did stop briefly in Wasilla, but as hard as I tried …  I couldn’t see Russia from there!

NEXT WEEK

PART TWO : Two if by Sea

Cuba Part 1: People to People

GUEST BLOGGER: DAVID RHODES

OK. How many of you have taken a vacation where the apparent goal was to visit as many churches (even if you’re Jewish) and museums as possible? Or at least until the funds ran out?

Raise your hand…

This year was my turn to pick our summer vacation destination, and I vowed to do something different. After all I had just had one of those “decade” birthdays. After much deliberation I chose Cuba. When informed of my choice, the only thing my wife said was “Cuba?” This she repeated several times over the next two days. On the third day, it changed to “Cuba!”

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Hanging out at a Cuban market

Since travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens (unless you’re Jay-Z and Beyonce) is restricted for the most part to educational, cultural or religious programs, we needed to find a group to travel with. A friend recommended Grand Circle Foundation, a company that runs People-to-People Cultural Exchange Programs that help the countries they visit. The Foundation has pledged or donated more than $91 million throughout the world. The programs emphasize meeting and speaking with “real” people.

“People-to-People” travel licenses were created under former President Bill Clinton. Along with many other missteps, they were stopped due to travel restrictions imposed by George W. Bush and later reinstated by the Obama administration. For this reason alone, Cubans love Obama.

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

Hotel Saratoga, Havana

We landed in Havana and checked into the Hotel Saratoga – the very same hotel where Jay-Z and Beyonce had stayed. Being in the same hotel as A-list celebrities was a new experience for my wife and me. During the next several days we argued with one of our tour group members from Michigan, as to who had Jay-Z and Beyonce’s room. In the end, for the sake of tour group relations, we resolved that she had their room and we had Cyndi Lauper’s room. Why Cyndi? We had just seen Kinky Boots on Broadway. (Has she ever been to Cuba? If not, she can say she stayed in the Rhodes’ room when she visits!)

Art Deco in Havana

Art Deco in Havana

Walking through the streets of Havana you see a city that has been in architectural decline for decades. Buildings once magnificent are now in dire need of TLC. In spite of this, the city still has an amazing air of dignity and style.  Some of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture can be found in Havana. This year Havana was the host site of the World Congress on Art Deco.

Baseball is a large part of Cuban culture. In our tour guide Roberto’s quest to arrange spontaneous “people-to-people” experiences, he organized a pick-up baseball game for Austin, an 18 year-old tour group member who had just received a full baseball athletic scholarship to New Mexico State. Roberto approached a group of young men on a street corner in Cienfuegos, the home of Los Angeles Dodgers rookie phenom Yasiel Puig with the promise of rum and other swag if they could assemble enough friends for a ballgame at the local field that afternoon.

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

Pick-up baseball in Cienfuegos

With no advance warning we drove to the ball field – which was really a flat field full of rocks and scattered horse droppings. In Cuba horses and other animals are used as lawn mowers. Needless to say, we did not strike fear in the hearts of our opponents as we unloaded from the bus. Sixteen Americans, some slightly overweight (count me in), some in flip flops (count me in) who probably had not played ball in over 25 years (count me in) …if at all.

Trash talking is not nearly so effective when your opponent doesn’t speak the same language, but it didn’t stop either side. No one was keeping score, since we already knew who the winner would be. The game was pure comedy – easy grounders missed, fly balls dropped, horse manure stepped in, not enough gloves to go around, pitches flailed at, cars almost hit, and some friendly cheating. Our side did manage to score a few runs with the help of my 2 for 3 performance at the plate.

Leena and husband

Leena and husband

One afternoon Roberto invited my wife and me to visit Leena, a woman in her late 60’s he had met 12 months prior. She lives in a tiny apartment with her husband off the town square. Leena told Roberto of her dream the prior week that he would visit her soon. She was overjoyed to see him.

During our visit Roberto gave Leena two bottles of Aleve. When they first met, she had mentioned that she suffered from arthritis. To her the medicine was like gold. Even though there is free health care in Cuba, citizens must pay high prices for any medications needed.

Dance Practice

Dance Practice

The Arts have been supported as much as financially possible by the government. Music and dance permeate Cuban culture. At a rest stop between Havana and Cienfuegos our driver Felix offered Laura, a young dancer waiting for a bus, a ride. Before we reached our destination, Roberto had arranged for us to see a rehearsal of Laura’s dance company the following day.

Even though the wood floors in the rehearsal space were warped and probably had never been refinished and the temperature was well over 90 degrees, the dancers vibrated to the beats coming out of a boom box. The condition of the location was irrelevant to the dancers. The pride in their craft was what mattered.

When we checked in at our hotel in Trinidad each group member received a bottle of aged Cuban rum. Since the rum could not be brought back to the US and we couldn’t possibly drink it all, our tour guide Roberto said he had something in mind for the bottles. After finishing an incredible meal in Havana on our last night, we exited the restaurant to find four vintage 1940’s American convertibles -pink, orange, blue and white- waiting to take us back to the Hotel Nacional.

People to People

People to People

Could Hollywood have scripted a better ending to a vacation? Sixteen tourists piled into four vintage convertibles, cruising down the malecon under a starlit Havana sky, horns honking, stopping and passing out bottles of excellent rum to random Cubans. The look on their faces was indescribable when presented with the rum.

Could it get any more “people-to-people” than that???

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…

NASCAR: the Game – Paris Version

Normandy

Normandy

Why Perk and I decided to rent a car in Paris to drive to Normandy with our Colorado family was a flash of foolishness at best. We could have rented from Hertz somewhere on the Peripherique, the beltway of Paris. Instead we found ourselves in a real-life video game with heart-stopping action!  As in an arcade, NASCAR: the game – Perkins Paris Version begins simply, then escalates with challenges…

Level 1: Searching for Dante.  Push your way through the crowds at Gare du Nord to find the Hertz office (along with other rental agencies) in a subterranean catacomb. Take an elevator further down; descend a flight of stairs to find your car wedged in a stall with 2 inches to spare on either side. The lighting is dim, the cavern walls damp. Crawl across the gear shift to the driver’s side, wriggle the car out of the space, trying not to ride the clutch. You have completed the novice qualifying round!

Offer the keys to your son-in-law who has spent the last week driving a stick-shift through the Spanish Pyrenees and has a fearless attitude. He accepts the challenge and agrees to complete the course.

Earn 500 points

Level 2: The Corkscrew. Follow the exit signs to a circular ramp with such an incredibly tight screw that, for five levels, walls on both sides are scarred by the paint of past vehicles trying to escape: black, gray, blue and blood red scrapes reflect the screaming curses of previous drivers.  You creep out unscathed amid cheers and adulation from the passengers in the back seat!

Earn 1000 points

Cumulative Total: 1500 points

Street Market

Street Market

Level 3: The Street Market.  Debouche (we’re practicing French!) into a traffic jam; make a wrong turn and end up in the middle of a market.  The sliver of street has parked cars on one side; stalls of fruits and vegetables, handbags and scarves on the other. Vendors hawk their wares in strident pleas.  An elderly woman, back bent into a question mark and wearing a frayed pink cardigan staggers in front of your car while pulling her trolley of groceries home.  You do not hit her!

Earn 500 points

Cumulative Total: 2000 points

Cars, bicyclists and motor scooters clog the road. You try shortcuts, have no clue where you’re going. Your co-pilot pulls out the GPS.

Rose at the Roadside Rest

Rose at the Roadside Rest

Level 4: The Peripherique and the By-ways.  Take advantage of the straight-away and catch your breath.  Six lanes of organized traffic bring your heart beat back to normal. You stop for lunch and to smell the roses at a roadside rest. You dawdle through beautiful small towns in Normandy. It’s easy driving. Where’s the NASCAR challenge?

Lose 500 points

Cumulative Total: 1500 points

Level 5: Pick Up Speed. Resume the challenge when you return to Paris on the Peripherique. You need to buy gas or pay a $225 fee to Hertz.  Catch a glimpse of a gas pump icon on an exit to Place de la Porte Maillot– zoom across five lanes of traffic and swerve on to a city street. Brake quickly as you find yourself in the Bois de Boulogne, traffic inching along in stodgy lanes. Old men sit on benches; children squeal in the playground.  It is rush hour, but no one is rushing in the Bois. No gas station is to be seen.  You do not lose your temper!

Earn 500 points

Cumulative Total: 2000 points

Level 6: Pit Stop.  Circle back to the Place. Ask a gendarme for directions to the gas station. He says to go straight on and then descend into an underground parking area that also vends gasoline.  Miss the turn, circle back … plunge down the chute to the unvented parking garage filled with gas fumes. Fill the tank, then realize that the exit is a 45 degree uphill plane. Slam the car into gear, flatten the gas pedal and pray. You spurt out into the oncoming traffic that miraculously swerves around you!

Earn 1000 points

Cumulative Total: 3000 points

Level 7: Final Triumph.  Shoot along the Avenue de la Grande Armee. Undisciplined traffic bucks and plunges alongside the rental car as you circle the Arch of Triumph, holding the inside like a good racehorse. A bicyclist looks scornfully at your hand-held GPS as he dares you to hit him. Dodging scooters and delivery trucks, you dare a purple Mini Cooper to challenge your progress; she backs down with a look of dismay at being bested by a tourist.

Arch of Triumph

Arch of Triumph

Your breath becomes quick and shallow; you focus on speed, crevices in the traffic, and screech out of the circle – the exit to Avenue de Friedland, the final straight-away to Gare du Nord and the Hertz return.  You cruise through the last stretch. After a quick left and then an immediate right into the station, the checkered flag is waved!

Earn 2000 points

Cumulative total: 5000 points!

The Winner and CHAMPION with no scrapes, no dents, no penalties, no deaths!

(Next time we’ll go by train!)

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?