Monday, August 27, 2012

Things I wish someone had told me before we went to Europe

So, we're back, and we had a fabulous time, and very smooth travels. I'm sure I'll be posting more about it as I process the experience. But what's bumping around my brain right now is things I wish I had known before we went. In no particular order:

1. Always buy train tickets from a human. The machines are everywhere, and tempting when you don't speak the language, but we were never able to get them to take our credit cards (and 4 train tickets is a lot of cash...), and in one instance, after it refused to take the card and we went to a human, the tickets cost 2/3 as much from the human as the machine (saving us about $65...) So, humans are good. In many stations, they have flags displayed for each agent indicating what languages they speak (look for the Great Britain flag, not the American flag...)

2. Italian waiters will never, EVER bring you the check until you ask. Sometimes more than once. They would consider it the height of rudeness to bring the check unasked, like they were rushing you off. Most Italian restaurants expect one party to occupy a table the entire evening. So, learn the following Italian phrase: "Il conto, per favore." It means "Check, please"!

3. If you order water, you will get bottled water. For about $3 for 3/4 of a liter. You will go broke  if you drink as much water as we do. It took us a week and a fair amount of desperation before we discovered that if you ask for tap water, they will happily provide it. Although "tap water" doesn't really translate - we said "from the sink" and that seemed to do it. If you do want bottled water, they will ask if you want "gas or no gas". I was completely stymied by this our first night, but Chris correctly deduced that they meant sparkling or flat. So if you want flat, you want "no gas" or "naturale". Also, ice is an alien concept on the continent. They have it in England, but nowhere else. Learn to live without it.

4. French hotels have almost no electrical outlets. We thought to bring a number of plug adaptors, but in France, we had 1 outlet in each of the 3 hotel rooms we inhabited; two of those also had an outlet in the bathroom. In the third one, in Paris, in record 98 degree heat, we had to choose between plugging in my CPAP machine and the fan overnight. We opted unanimously for the fan.

5. Which brings me to air conditioning: they have it in Italy, but not mostly anywhere further north than Italy. The very first items we bought when we arrived in Rome were fans. They were essential equipment until we reached London...

6. Use crosswalks. Especially in Italy. The drivers are lunatics, but they do respect crosswalks and will stop for them if there are pedestrians waiting to cross. Jaywalk in Rome, and you are taking your life in your hands....

7. The street names are pretty much all on the sides of the buildings at the corners. We were completely confounded in Rome looking for our hotel, because we had no idea what street we were on, because we were looking for American-style road signs, which they do not have in Italy or much of anywhere we went in Europe. By our next stop, we'd worked that out, and navigating became a lot easier.

8. Admit you will never learn to recognize the small change. The actual denomination markings on the coins are so small and so faint, you will drive yourself crazy trying to work out which is which. Size is no indicator - the 2 pence piece is the biggest of the British small change, and the 20 pence piece the smallest. I found if  I dumped my small change on the counter and began picking through it, the cashier would help me find what I needed. Oh, and they have coins for 1 and 2 Euro or Pounds, not bills. Those, you will learn to recognize pretty quickly, and they are much more clearly marked.

9. Diet Coke is called Coke Light on the continent (but Diet Coke in the U.K.). And Coke products are everywhere. If you are, like me, a Diet Pepsi addict, prepare to suffer with Coke Light for the duration. We only found Pepsi products in England, and Coke was still more common.

10. Everyone smokes in public. Funny, they are much more progressive on environmental issues (fewer cars, better rail, more bikes, more walking) and have a much better sense of how to live in their environment (e.g., using shutters on the sunny side of the house, then opening them once that side is shady) than Americans, but they all smoke like chimneys in public. There's not a lot you can do about it other than move. And use that fan to waft it away from you!

Those are the biggies... we figured them all out sooner or later (mostly sooner, except the water).

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Cultural exchange

When I was Rapunzel's age, I spent a month in Munich on a cultural exchange trip. Our German partner students came to Boston for a month in the summer of 1977, and we went to Munich the summer of 1978. At the time, I was amazed my parents were willing to spend the money (the then-enormous sum of $600, about $2,200 in today's dollars); now, as a mother, I am amazed they were willing to let a 16 year old roam around a foreign city mostly on her own (yes, we had chaperones and supervised activities, but we also had some unsupervised time to ourselves, and we made the most of it).

This is the only one of my slides from Munich I've scanned...
I don't recall what building this was.
The trip was sponsored by the Goethe Institute for the purpose of cultural exchange (the fact that I learned more German in 30 days than I had in 2 years in school was merely a side benefit). And I do think the most lasting impact it had on me was cultural. But on a different scale than I think the Institute had in mind. The organizers planned trips to art museums and historical sites, churches and architectural sights. We took ourselves to beer gardens and movie theaters, department stores and restaurants. The German students wept for the death of Elvis while they were here, and wanted nothing more than to buy American blue jeans. The American students marveled at the lack of drinking age there, and drank like fish (if you ordered a "beer" there with no qualifiers, you got a liter stein). And we noticed smaller, more personal things. We learned that it was just as offensive to use the formal form of address in German with someone you knew well as it was to use the informal with a stranger.

We learned that while meticulous about their public spaces, Germans were far less obsessive than Americans about personal cleanliness (which, let's face it, Americans are fairly compulsive about). My host family would have been horrified if I'd showered daily, considering that a profligate use of water (and I discovered that not only would the world not end if I did not, but that my dry skin would actually thank me for it. As a result, it's a habit that's stuck ever since, and now you know my literally dirty secret - I don't shower every day!) Nor did they do laundry nearly as often as we do, wearing garments multiple times before washing them, another habit that has stuck. One thing I could not embrace was their practice of ironing their pajamas and jeans every day, even if they had been worn...

But the Germans were very conscious of their public face, on scales both large and small. One of the things that astonished the American students on a daily basis was the immaculate cleanliness of their subways and other public spaces. You could have eaten off the floor in their subway stations. I grew up in Boston, and trust me, you don't even want to STEP on the floor of Boston's subway stations, lest something vile make its way through your shoes, which stick repulsively to the floor. The substances that cause that do not bear thinking about.

But this attention to their public face went beyond the floors of their subways. They took us to the Olympic Park, and while I was oblivious at the time, I am in hindsight astounded that they made no mention, a mere 6 years after the fact, of the deaths of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics on that very site. I think in their mind, it was a blot on their culture that they did not want to draw attention to.

More glaring was the complete absence on the itinerary of a trip to Dachau, which is only about 45 minutes from Munich by subway. So appalled were two of my American friends and I that we played hooky from one of the art museums and took the train to Dachau ourselves. My host family was not enthusiastic. I tried to explain that I didn't judge them for this black period in German history - after all, they weren't personally the people who perpetrated the Holocaust, and indeed, most Germans at the time were guilty only of looking the other way out of fear of their own lives. How can I know I would have done differently? And much of the rest of the world looked away too, with possibly less excuse. So it was important to us (me, and my friends Lyz and Scott) not to look away. We had nothing more to fear than offending our hosts. So we went, and it was surprisingly banal. Perhaps evil is always banal up close; I don't know. But I'm glad we went.

So yes, I took away a lot of cultural enlightenment from my trip to Munich, some trivial, some deeply meaningful, little of it of the art-and-architecture sort the organizers had in mind. I can only hope that Rapunzel and The Nerd get a similar experience out of our trip to Europe - that the experience transcends the sights and activities and opens their eyes and hearts to the realization that the world is a much bigger and varied place than our little corner of North Carolina.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Making the world I want

I saw a quote recently on Facebook in the wake of the brouhaha over a certain fast food chain owner's stand on gay marriage to the effect that you should spend every dollar as if it were a vote for the world you want. And it's made me think about what is the world I want, and how do we get there?

It will be no surprise to most of you that I am a pragmatist, not an idealist. So what follows are a pragmatist's thoughts on the infeasibility of spending every dollar like it's a vote for the world you want. If you are an idealist, I'm not trying to offend or denigrate you or your choices - the world surely needs idealists, and I'm grateful for you, I just am not one of you. For the rest of you, I promise not to rehash the fast food chain issue (which I choose not to name in the hopes of not drawing the crazies out of the woodwork...but if you don't know who I mean, I wonder if there's room under your rock for me, because I'm getting sick of reading about it).

Anyway. I read a piece about the brouhaha that asserted that in this age of the Internet, it was possible to get information on companies about their stands on political and social issues. I agree in theory, up to a point. But here's where the pragmatist speaks up. The theory is all well and good: yes, that information is out there on the Internet for publicly owned companies for sure, and probably a number of other large but privately owned companies. But stop and think for a minute about everything you buy in a month, about every store you patronize. How many different companies are represented? Companies that make or sell the goods, companies that offer services? Groceries, clothing, home improvement, cleaning supplies, household items, toiletries, medications, pet products, toys, entertainment, and that probably only scratches the surface.

So in theory, I could find out where all those stores, all those products' manufacturers stand on gay marriage, but how long would it take? And wait, while I'm at it, where do they stand on the environment and global warming - are they green? And what about evolution vs creationism, or women's rights? The list could be endless. I, like you, have a life: a job, two kids, volunteer commitments, family, friends... gathering all this information on that many entities and all the issues I care about would be a full time job...

And what of the small businesses? I like to patronize small local businesses when I can, especially for service-oriented things. That's based not just on spend-local principles (though that factors in), but also on the selfish observation that small businesses usually provide better, more personalized service. That's why I patronize a small local pharmacy, the locally owned movie theater, a locally owned restaurant - they know me, they want to help me, they want to accommodate my preferences. I recently ran into my pharmacist in another store, and he greeted me warmly. His staff usually has my prescription in their hand by the time I cover the 25 ft from the door to the counter. But I confess, I know nothing of his views on social and political issues, or how he donates his money (or if he donates his money), and it's not really something I can find out. I patronize his business because he provides good, personalized, attentive service, and frankly, I don't really care what his politics are - he treats me with respect and attention to my needs, and that's all I can reasonably ask.

But suppose I did know a lot about a business - either I've done my Internet homework, or I happen to have information about a local business some other way. Then it's easy, right? Wrong. What if you agree on some issues and disagree on others? What then?

As it happens, I do patronize a local business, a dairy about 5 miles from my house that I drive past every day, whose owners (a couple about the age of my parents) I do know a fair amount about. We make a point of buying their milk, and we patronize their ice cream store far too often for the good of my waistline. They are Republicans, and not shy about it - they post political signs regularly, and those are 100% Republican, so there can be little doubt. I think it highly likely they supported Amendment 1, which amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage, an outcome that grieved me enormously. But. They also give generously to the local schools and have for years. They run a solar-powered agricultural education center to teach kids about green agriculture. They recently donated land to the local volunteer fire department for a fire station, and have given easements in perpetuity to the Triangle Land Conservancy, ensuring their many acres in rural Orange County will not be turned into a subdivision in 10 or 20 years (for which I am grateful, because I'd rather drive by cows than McMansions). They are active in the community - I routinely see the wife volunteering at the precinct we both vote in on election day. Their ice cream store opened on New Year's Day 2005 and donated all the receipts to relief efforts for the victims of the December 26, 2004, tsunami; the line was out the door.

So. Should I stop patronizing a local, environmentally responsible business that supports many causes I approve of because the owners are Republicans who are almost certainly against gay marriage? For the record, I have not, and I don't plan to. Their milk is in my refrigerator even as I type, and I'm seriously thinking of going to the ice cream store tonight to celebrate The Nerd's first stay-home-with-Rapunzel-all-day success.

The problem is, even if we had the time and ability to obtain perfect information, life is so much more nuanced and complex than us vs. them, than gay marriage or not gay marriage (or any other hot button topic of the day). If we're going to make the world I want, we have to keep talking to each other, not choosing up sides and shouting at each other over our signs at a protest. Social issues like gay marriage change over time through the gradual changing of one person's heart at a time. I know people I love dearly who are still struggling with this issue, and others who have struggled and whose hearts have been changed. Those hearts weren't changed by a sign in a picket line, by standing on one side of a line in the sand, by being shouted at by someone on the other side of that line. They were changed by having real dialogue, real relationships with other human beings. By listening and being heard. And that's the world I want.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

End of an era

Dear Carolina Friends School Summer Program:

For 10 years, one or both of our daughters, Rapunzel (now nearly 16) and The Nerd (now 12), have been going to summer camp for about 5 weeks a summer. They've been to at least half a dozen different camps, but CFS has been the mainstay: they have done at least two weeks with you every summer. No other camp has held their attention year after year like yours.

10 years ago, when Rapunzel was in kindergarten, my mother in law came to me and said "I want to check out this Friends School camp for Rapunzel." I can't remember how she heard about you, but she was enthusiastic. She checked you out, came to visit, and encouraged me to check out your summer brochure. I did, Rapunzel went for two weeks that summer, and she loved it.

Rapunzel outgrew camp about 2 years ago - she felt too old, at almost 14, for the camps, and being a CIT just wasn't her thing. So last summer, she stayed home by herself  while The Nerd went to camp. And now, The Nerd is outgrowing it too - I think this is her last summer. She too is beginning to feel like the oldest kid there, and also isn't interested in the Counselor-in-Training programs for teens (which is a shame - she'd be great at it...). And she's teetering on the edge of being willing to stay home alone with Rapunzel now, and expects to be fine with it by next summer. So it's feeling like the end of the summer camp era.

But I am grateful for CFS Summer camp every February as I download camp brochures. Neither of the girls were ever really into the traditional swimming-canoeing-archery-crafts type of summer camp. They've done a few weeks of that, but it wasn't really their cup of tea. They do love riding camp, but it's pricey, and we can't afford to do 5 weeks of that (much as they might love it!) So they tend to gravitate toward camps like CFS where there are a variety of topic-specific camps to choose from.

CFS is not the only camp of that sort around here. But after 10 years, and probably 75 kid-weeks of camp, more than half of them at CFS, I can say that it is the best. Why? Two reasons.

First, the breadth of your offerings amazes me year after year after year. You have something for every kid from 5 to 15: Animation, Batik, Cooking, Desserts, Earth arts, Fortbuilding, Guitar, Hoop flow, Improv, Jewelry, Kitchen chemistry, Lets rock, Magical quest, Naturewalk, Outdoor adventures, Photography, Robotics, Science, Theater, Ukelele, Video, Watercolor.... The girls have never failed to find 2 or 3 camps that grabbed them, though working out a schedule that hit their top choices in the same 2 or 3 weeks was always interesting!

One of The Nerd's photos from Photographic Eye
And then, there are the instructors... I don't know how you manage to hire such incredible instructors every time, but you do: the girls have probably done 35-40 kid-weeks at CFS, and every single one of those instructors has been great or awesome. Not most, but Every. Single. One. I always knew I could sign them up for anything at CFS and be completely confident that the camp would be exquisitely planned, expertly taught, educational, and entertaining.

So, thank you CFS Summer Staff, for entertaining my daughters so expertly for so many years. We'll miss you... Though if you can get Miss Christine, teacher of Photographic Eye this summer, back to do an advanced photography camp next summer, you might just see The Nerd one last time!