A journey is like a marriage. The sure way to be wrong is to think you control it¨
Everyone has a repertoire of stories that they like to tell friends after a couple of glasses of wine. Some of the standards I have repeated so often that my friends know them by heart, including the following:
- I can communicate in two languages in the same conversation. At different times in my life, I was able to hold reasonably intelligent discussions in French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian. I have not had many chances to speak Russian for years. Thus if I need to speak Russian, all the words come out at least for a couple of hours in French or Spanish, (Both of which I have the opportunity to use often). I have had opportunities to talk to Russian language speakers who also speak Italian, French, and Spanish. We have played a little game where they talked to me in Russian, and I responded in their respective other languages. To our mutual surprise, we were able to hold long and fairly fluent conversations.
- I have eaten and enjoyed a lot of unusual dishes, including:
- Chapulines (grasshoppers) in Mexico (a bit too chewy for my taste but a decent replacement for peanuts in a bar),
- Salo in Russia. Sala is salted or highly fermented, aged pork (sometimes smoked) usually eaten with butter on brown bread. It is also often accompanied by vodka. (I love this dish, but most Americans I know find it too fatty for their taste).
- Balut in the Philippines is a developing bird embryo boiled and eaten from the shell. In my experience, most people suck embryonic juice, and some people eat the fetus. (The juice tastes to me like a good bouillon. I have never eaten the embryo).
- As a kid, I would encourage my parents to let me try any restaurant featuring an unfamiliar cuisine. Thankfully my parents were usually game. If not, they would let me know why they did not want to stop, and I would accept their explanations. (I figured out younger than most kids that my parents were more inclined to indulge me if I was pleasant). As a result, by a young age, I was quite a foodie. I loved clams, turtle and abalone meat, escargot, frog legs, duck, brain, foie gras, cow cheeks, eel, sturgeon, and blood sausages. (Some of which I would not eat either today because it is either illegal or expensive). Other than the liver, I have never eaten a dish that I did not like. (Unless the cook did not prepare the plate properly). I particularly enjoy finding cities or countries, like Peru, Spanish Basque province, and Denmark, where the food is unexpectedly good. I also enjoy dining in venues ranging from street-side kiosks to five-star restaurants.
- Every time I return from a trip, someone asks me ¨How was your trip¨? My response is almost always something like: ¨It was much more interesting, pleasant, safer, (or some other positive adjective) than I expected¨. For five years, I lived with my parents around three to four months a year. At first, my father always asked me what I thought of the trip. However, after a while, he got so used to this response that instead, he asked me: ¨ How was the trip better than you thought?¨ Looking back, it reveals something interesting about me. I do see people and places with somewhat rose-colored glasses. I always look for and find something exciting and fresh about every place I visit.
- ¨I am pregnant¨ is one of the few Japanese phrases that I remember. I have always been relatively heavy-set. When I was in Japan as an exchange student in 1979, people would look at me and say ¨You’re fat¨. I found this insulting at first. But, then I read that being fat to the Japanese traditionally meant that you were wealthy and healthy. One day while reading Berlitz English-Japanese phrasebook, I came across ninshin shite imasu, which means I am pregnant. I would use this expression in response to the comments about my weight. When I tried it out, everyone laughed so hard that I decided to keep using it.
My Experiences in Kaliningrad
Some of my favorite stories come from my time as an English teacher in Kaliningrad, Russia including;
- On the first day of class, I asked the students what they like to do in their free time. One of my female students tested me by answering to “have sex.” Wanting to remain calm, I replied that most women prefer to “make love” since “having sex” referred to the physical act while “making love” was more romantic with champagne and roses. She replied, OK, I like to make love.
- Russians on the very first day of school have a special party to open the year. During this celebration, the teachers are introduced to the students. The headmistress of the school, introduced me by saying that “Paul is from America, he is single, and I hope he finds a wife here.” When I married one of her students nine months later, a radio program interviewed the headmistress. She advised potential students to come to her school because they might marry an American.
- For a month, I lived with one of the most exciting people I have ever met, Alexei Nikolaevich. Alexei, who was born around the time of the Russian revolution. When I met him, was an old, blind gentleman. His father lived under house arrest for most of the first years after the Russian revolution when Alexei was a young man. His father talked to Alexei every day in a different language. One day he’d speak English, the next French, the following day Russian, then German, and finally the local Siberian language. As a result, Alexei could speak many languages, almost fluently. Since he had few opportunities to speak English to a native speaker, he could talk to me very fluently and intelligently. But, he could only understand about 50% of what I said in response! Alexei became a math professor. He preferred social studies and languages to math but taught mathematics to avoid politics. Otherwise, he was afraid he could face the same problems as his father had with the Communist authorities.
Some Abandoned Stories
Of course, over time, my stories have changed. Some no longer interest me. Others, I avoid telling for fear of boring my audience.
However, the most common reason I abandon stories is that the real story is a lot less interesting than I thought. Here is a great example:
- When I was on a study abroad program at the American University in Cairo, every day, I looked out the Imbaba Bridge from my dorm window. Locals told me that Gustav Eiffel designed the bridge. And, that its construction drove him so crazy that he committed suicide in Cairo. I loved to tell the story for many years until I looked up the actual story in Wikipedia. Sadly, the real story is less appealing. No one knows for sure if he built the bridge or not. Someone else redesigned the bridge many years later. The first bridge was built in 1890 and Gustav Eiffel died in 1923 from natural causes. Thus, there is no way the bridge could have contributed to his death.
I love to talk about what I know about history, culture, and life in different corners of the world. Over time some friends have let me know that these lectures can be boring. Thus, I have learned to inform people: ¨Let me know if I play the professor too much, and I will stop. I am not offended.¨
A Little Knowledge Sometimes Pays Off in Unexpected Ways
That said, sometimes this knowledge pays off in surprising ways, including:
- My Geography degree allowed me to get a Master’s Degree in Public Administration for next to nothing. On one of the first days of my Master’s Degree Program, I met a young woman who had a degree in Geography from Guyana. She told me that the school had just started a new Geography Department and needed Teaching Assistants. She informed me that as a teaching assistant I would receive free tuition and a generous monthly stipend. I called, and the department told me to come to visit them and have an interview. I dressed in a suit, prepared my resume, and practiced for my interview. When I got to the interview, the professors took one look at my resume and said: ¨Oh, you have a Bachelor’s Degree from Macalester College. That is a good college. When can you start working?¨ The most uncomplicated interview I have ever had.
- I know where Timbuktu is and why it was a prominent place. In American English, we say that someone is going to Timbuktu to indicate a distant, out of the way location. Almost no one knows anything about Timbucktu. In my first year in college, I saw this extra credit question on a test in my Human Geography class: Where is Timbuktu and why it is important? I was the first student who knew the answer. The answer: Timbucktu is in Mali. It was one of the most important cities in the gold trade in the 13th century. The gold trade made the King of Mali (from Timbuktu) Mansu Musa so rich that he paid for the construction of hundreds of mosques in cities from Timbucktu to Mecca.