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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Family Vacations: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Put six family members on a plane, send them to a beautiful, tropical location for a week’s vacation, and what do you get? Misery. Sounds dramatic and ungrateful, I know. But that has often been my experience on family vacations.

As a child, I seldom went farther away than a small lake in Michigan for holidays. Thirteen of us crammed in a station wagon with no air conditioning and plenty of weekend traffic out to the east of town, where families flock to enjoy swimming, catching minnows, and getting a mean sunburn.

Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I remember those weeks at Van Auken Lake with fondness. We spent hours splashing around in inner tubes in the warm water. The local dogs loved us because we never tired of throwing sticks into the water for them to fetch. I always had a good book to read under the giant weeping willow.

On the other hand, I was not the mom back then. My only responsibility was to obey my parents and, occasionally, my older sisters. Somehow, now that my husband and I are in charge of the fun, it’s not as much, well, fun.

First of all, we are all sharing a much smaller space. Jockeying for position and shower time in the bathroom, trying to dress discreetly, tiptoeing around in the dark so as not wake others up. As an early riser, I was always the parent stuck trying to entertain our young children while hubby slept in. Now that our kids are older, they are the ones grumbling when we attempt to wake them up to go to breakfast.

That’s another difficult part of traveling. Everyone develops his or her own schedule of going to bed, waking up, and getting hungry. We spend fruitless time trying to decide when, where, and what to eat. Some of us are starving while others just ate and are not at all hungry.

Probably the biggest issue for my husband and me is that we both like to be in charge. This works fine at home where he orders people around at work and I am the master of the home domain. On vacation, however, we argue a lot about the best way to get to a destination, the restaurant at which to have dinner, or what the agenda is for the day.

Still, I must admit there are lots of good times to be had on a family vacation. I enjoy watching the kids clown around in the pool or build sand castles on the beach. Souvenir shopping can be fun – until it gets tiring and I need to sit down. Warm weather, great dinners, ice cream cones, and staying up late to watch a movie have all been enjoyable parts of our trips.

And it’s amusing to recall funny events or mishaps that happened on family vacations – for instance, my “heart attack” in Phoenix, Arizona, that turned out to be bronchitis and the disastrous Triple Chocolate Utopia that made my son hurl all over our rental car. (I guess you had to be there.)

As much aggravation as there can be traveling with one’s family, there are also memories to be made, pictures to put in the photo albums, and even essays to write back at school about that ubiquitous subject, “What I Did on Vacation.” At my worst on a family trip, I have been known to make the pronouncement that this is the last family vacation I will ever go on. But my husband and kids know I don’t mean it.

They know that come December, I will be looking out my window at the wintry world and booking our tickets for fun in the sun once more.

A Bite of the Big Apple

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Last weekend I went to New York City to visit my oldest daughter. I have always found the city intimidating. On one of my first trips there, I tried to order coffee in a crowded deli. The exchange between the order taker and me went like this:

Me:  Decaf coffee, please.
Him: Regular?
Me (louder): No, DECAF!
Him (exasperated): Regular?
Me (questioning his hearing): DECAF!

I finally realized that in New York, “regular” means “with cream and sugar.” What I wanted was decaf coffee, black.

On this visit, I had an experienced New Yorker (my daughter) to squire me around. Now, my 23-year-old has only lived in New York for a year, but she can skirt around a huge pile of garbage like a seasoned native. She is barely five feet tall, but just try fighting her for a cab. I thought Chicagoans were good at walking against the traffic light, but she could stroll across a busy street, cool as a cucumber, with only seconds until the light changed.

On previous trips to New York, I had spent most of my time in Midtown, home of such tourist meccas as Fifth Avenue, Times Square and Central Park. Although crowded, noisy, and often smelly, Midtown is still pretty “white bread.” On this trip, my daughter introduced me to a hipper part of town – East Village and the Lower East Side. I stayed in a trendy hotel that looked more like an underground nightclub. On our walks around town, I noticed a lot more graffiti, unsightly construction, and oddly dressed people. As my daughter explained when I was fretting about what to wear, “Mom, everyone here is a freak, so it doesn’t matter how you look.” I decided to go with all black (Cue the finger snapping, Daddio).

The weather was perfect for being outside. We shopped in SoHo, went to see my daughter’s sardine can apartment, rode on the subway, and did a lot of eating and drinking. As my daughter put it, “Besides working, the only thing to do in New York is consume.” She also said she loves the East Village because she could live there for 10 years and never try all of the myriad restaurants in the area. I had to admire the number of little shops, cafes, corner markets and food vendors everywhere. It would be hard to get bored in New York City. (My husband would be on his iPhone trying to find the nearest Panera Bread.)

We also managed to fit in a Broadway show and found ourselves in hysterics at a performance of “The Book of Mormon.” As a send-up of organized religion, the play made me cringe and laugh in about equal measure. The most challenging part of our weekend was skirting around the mob-like theater crowd after the show got out that evening. Leave it to my petite but ruthless bodyguard to find a way through the crowd and to that rarest of New York evening phenomena, an available taxi.

I had mixed feelings as I bid my daughter farewell and headed home to the quieter, gentler Second City. I would miss her terribly, but at least I knew she could handle herself in the Big Apple. And as my plane touched down in Chicago, I looked forward to driving to the quaint, leafy suburb I call home.