No Place Like Home

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IMG_1235There were numerous times on my almost-three-week sojourn in Europe with my daughter and her club soccer team that I wished I could click my heels Dorothy-style, whisper, “There’s no place like home,” and find myself in the comfort and familiarity of my home town.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a rare privilege to travel to Europe, whatever the reason. I got to visit places I had never been, such as Gothenburg, Sweden, a beautiful and orderly city that each summer hosts the Gothia Cup, a huge international youth soccer tournament. I was able to dip my toes in the Adriatic Sea and enjoy an Aperol spritz on the beach in Riccione, Italy. I enjoyed fish and chips and scones in England. And in all of these places, I was able to see my daughter’s team go up against teams from Italy, Sweden, Germany, and Manchester, England.

Yet traveling to a foreign country can be stressful. First of all, there’s the language barrier. In Rome and Sweden, most people spoke English. Many restaurants even print menus in English. But there were times when our inability to understand each other caused problems. For example, the personnel at one hotel in Italy spoke very little English, and they weren’t particularly helpful in addressing such issues as finding transportation or dealing with an invasion of ants in one of the guest rooms. On the other hand, we met a pair of lovely older Italian women running a little fast food stand on the beach who smilingly helped us with our flailing attempts to order the local specialty, piadene, a sort of Italian quesadilla.

Even in English-speaking countries, cultural differences can make travel less of a breeze. For instance, it’s hard to adjust to the currency in another country. The euro is pretty easy to manage because one euro is fairly close to a dollar. Likewise with the British pound, although at 1.3 dollars to a pound, things in England were a little pricier than they appeared. But in Sweden, the krona is .12 to a dollar, so prices would be in the hundreds of krona for a 10-20 dollar item. Managing all the various coins at point of purchase also made me feel like something of a clueless rube.

Food is also an adjustment in a foreign country. You’ll find that even simple dishes such as eggs or pasta are prepared in ways that are different from typical American fare. It was fun trying some traditional specialties in the countries we visited, such as the aforementioned piadene in Italy and real Swedish meatballs in Gothenburg at a charming out-of-the-way place called The Pig and the Whistle. But at times some of us craved good old American food, such as a cheeseburger or American-style cobb salad.

It’s good to visit other countries and learn about their customs and lifestyles. Italians, for example, never seem to be in a hurry. Our restaurant lunches and dinners would go on and on, and we practically had to beg for the bill so that we could move on. I think Americans could learn from this more unhurried approach to life, especially when it comes to enjoying the good things. In Sweden, I noticed scores of young men by themselves tending to babies and toddlers. Someone told me that this is due to the generous family leave policies in Sweden as well as the more equitable division of labor in Swedish marriages.

It’s even good to feel uncomfortable in a place that is not your home. Years ago, when my husband and I were in China to adopt our youngest child, we experienced what it was like to be in a minority. There were few Western faces anywhere we traveled. Once the babies were with us, complete strangers – usually older women – would come up to us and scold us in Chinese about how we were handling our new charges. The babies were too overdressed for the weather, for instance, according to our English-speaking guide. That experience was invaluable to us as we prepared to bring our Chinese daughter home to a land where she would be in the minority.

Travel broadens our horizons, takes us out of our complacency, and ultimately makes us appreciate our lives in our own homes. As our plane touched down at O’Hare International Airport, I reveled in the knowledge that I was home at last. There really is no place like home.

 

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Mind the Gap

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Do you speak English? I’m not referring to the English language in general but to the English spoken across the pond. Last weekend my husband and I had a delightful sojourn in England to celebrate a friend’s milestone birthday.

Before we had even de-boarded the plane, I started to hear British colloquialisms such as topping off  your drink and silencing your mobile. Upon landing in London, we got in a queue to exit customs and take the Tube into the city. There was no lift at Piccadilly Circus, so we had to haul our luggage up the stairs.

Traveling to a foreign country always involves adjusting to unfamiliar customs, language, and food. I remember wondering at the concept of breakfast in China, which for the Chinese consists of a watery rice porridge called congee. Even in Western countries, you have to expect that your concept of such basic foods as pizza will be challenged.

In England, one of the more dangerous adjustments involves the fact that drivers drive on the left side of the road. London streets try to avoid disaster by having the words “Look right” or “Look left” painted on the ground at crossings.

But language is one of the things that fascinates me most about visiting an English-speaking country with different expressions. Many of the words we use in America for common items are different in England – such as nappy instead of diaper or car park in lieu of parking lot. The English also use different expressions for the same idea. For example, the conductor on the train informed riders that the train would be calling at certain stops. I found this idiom rather charming, implying as it does a sort of personal invitation to travelers. I also loved our taxi driver’s assuring us we would  fill our boots at a local dining establishment. The visual that conjured up was amusing.

Between the British accents and some of the differences in the way the English refer to things, my husband and I would often need an individual to repeat him or herself. At those times, my husband liked to use the famous quip alternately attributed to George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde: “We are two countries separated by a common language.”

But while I certainly took to heart the pleasant female voice on the Tube urging us to “Mind the gap between the car and the platform,” I really don’t mind the gap between our two versions of the English language. After all, the Brits were using it first!